COMMUNITY CHURCH OF THE MONTEREY PENINSULA
P. O. BOX 222811
CARMEL CA 93922
Rev. Paul Wrightman, Pastor
Independent and United Church of Christ
February 28, 2021
Tomorrow is the big day – the day of our first Quarterly Church Family Zoom Meeting! We’ll all miss the incredible potluck – something to look forward to again, hopefully in the not-so-distant future. But at least all of us will be able to hear each other, and most of us will be able to both see and hear. If you haven’t done so yet, there’s still time to get a Zoom link from Jane: email@example.com. The meeting will start with time to visit from 2:15-2:30, then the meeting proper at 2:30. Hope to see and hear you there!
Please remember that Community Church is still committed to collecting food for the Food Bank at St. Mary’s in Pacific Grove. Bring any non-perishable items to the church office. Many thanks!
If you received a bouquet and vase, and would like to recycle the vase for future bouquets, please drop it off at the church office or ask Cindy Daniel to stop by your home to pick it up. Her number is 1-208-941-1160. And all of us express our deep appreciation to Heidi Quandt for her amazing flower ministry!
Stay Safe, Take Care, and Always Remember that Jesus IS Emmanuel –
God WITH Us! Pastor Paul
WORSHIP SERVICE FOR FEBRUARY 28, 2021
INTRODUCTORY READING: A MEDLEY OF READINGS ON THE MEANING OF LOVE
IN THE JEWISH-CHRISTIAN TRADITION
By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.
--The Cloud of Unknowing
The greatest thing that can happen to any human soul is to become utterly filled with love; and self-sacrifice is love’s natural expression. –William Temple
Love to God is the slowest development to mature in the soul. No man ever learned to love God with all his heart, and his neighbor as himself, in a day.
--Henry Ward Beecher
When you love you should not say, ‘God is in my heart,’ but rather, ‘I am in the heart of God.’ And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course. –Kahlil Gibran
Would’st thou learn thy Lord’s meaning in these things? Learn it well: Love was His meaning. Who showed it thee? Love. What showed He thee? Love. Wherefore showed it He? For Love. Hold thee therein and thou shalt learn and know more in the same. –Lady Julian of Norwich
Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting for this meaning to be disclosed and to be realized by you. . .Meet the world with the fullness of your being and you shall meet God. If you wish to believe, love! --Martin Buber
SUGGESTED MUSIC: Standing at the Future’s Threshold You Tube
NCH 538 “Standing at the Future’s Threshold”
First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara – UCC
OPENING PRAYER: Helen Thomas, Contemporary
He makes me so damned angry, Lord. Forgive me. I cannot explain it or justify it and I recognize it as a lack of love. What am I to do? The minute I see him my nerves stand on edge and when we talk my temper tries at once to break loose from its tenuous moorings. Yet to avoid talking is unkind and cowardly. Give me forbearance I beg you, so that I do not judge or argue with everything he says, but try to understand what he is saying and how I might respond in love. Amen.
who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on earth
as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
SCRIPOTURE READING: JOHN 15:9-15, NRSV
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
SERMON: HOW WE THINK (AND FEEL) ABOUT GOD MATTERS
Rev. Paul Wrightman
(The underlining indicates what I would emphasize if delivered orally.)
The divisions within American Christianity are at a boiling point, parallel to the political divisions in our country, which are also at a boiling point. This sermon looks at “radical” or “progressive” Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity and finds both lacking. My description of each is not intended to judge but to understand. Then we move on to the task of asking how “moderate” Christians, which most of us are, can build bridges and not walls between people.
Perhaps the single biggest factor keeping many people away from a real relationship with God is the false image they have of who God is.
How we think about God matters.
We need to free God (and ourselves!) from our wrong-headed approaches to Scripture, and the bad theology flowing from our wrong use of Scripture.
If we were Roman Catholics, God would need to be freed from spiritual abuse by the hierarchy and the manipulative use of tradition. Indeed, many Roman Catholic theologians and spiritual writers are talking about what needs to be done to free God within their own tradition, Pope Francis not least among them.
As Protestants, our theology is derived from our understanding of the Bible, which means that correcting our image of God with Protestantism means correcting our abuse of Scripture.
Today I would like to critique two popular but extreme approaches to Scripture which I believe are equally bankrupt: so-called “radical” or “progressive” Christianity, on the one hand, and Christian fundamentalism, on the other. I offer these criticisms of each position because I believe that contemporary Christianity in the United States is broken. And in order to put the broken pieces back together again – or at least to get them talking with one another again! – one needs to understand the nature, or content, of each broken piece. Often one needs to take something apart before it can be put back together again.
I’ll be presenting each position in very broad brush-strokes. However, broad brush-strokes are sometimes a necessary and effective way to make a point.
“Radical,” or “progressive” Christianity is a child of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries which in many ways substituted reason for God.
According to the Enlightenment, anything in Christianity – or any other religion, for that matter – which went beyond the boundary of reasonableness had to go. Thus, the Incarnation, the redemptive nature of Jesus’ death, and the Resurrection were all impossible by definition.
According to radical Christianity, Jesus is a great teacher and moral example, but nothing more.
One of the main goals of the Enlightenment was to liberate science from its domination by religion. It succeeded magnificently in doing this.
However, in setting up reason and rationality as ultimates, the Enlightenment overreached itself. Today, many who practice the scientific disciplines of physics, astronomy, cosmology, and biology are arguing that reason simply doesn’t go far enough, and that a truer understanding of the nature of reality has to include paradox and mystery.
Many eminent scientists affirm the paradox and mystery of the Christian understandings of incarnation and resurrection as being truer to the nature of reality than reason alone.
Thus, it is highly ironic that many radical Christian Scripture scholars and theologians, in being so quick to embrace the hyper-rationality of the Enlightenment, and reject the paradox and mystery inherent in Christianity, are actually a century or so behind the times in terms of many of their scientific colleagues, who have no trouble embracing the very things that radical Christians are often quick to reject.
Radical Christianity is one of two extreme forms of Christianity that is alive and well today. The other extreme – much more prevalent in the United States than radical Christianity – is fundamentalism.
Let’s look at a caricature of the fundamentalist God, “Good Old Uncle George,” portrayed by Gerald Hughes, an English Jesuit priest, in his book God of Surprises:
“God was a family relative, much admired by mum and dad, who described him as very loving, a great friend of the family, very powerful, and interested in all of us. Eventually we were taken to visit ‘good old Uncle George.’
He lives in a formidable mansion, is bearded, gruff, and threatening. We cannot share our parents’ professed admiration for this jewel in the family.
At the end of the visit, Uncle George addressed us. ‘Now listen, dears, he begins, looking very severe. I want to see you here once a week, and if you fail to come, let me just show you what will happen to you.’ He then leads us down to the mansion’s basement.
It is dark, becomes hotter and hotter as we descend, and we begin to hear unearthly screams.
In the basement there are steel doors. Uncle George opens one. ‘Now look in there, dear,’ he says. We see a nightmare vision, an array of blazing furnaces with little demons in attendance, who hurl into the blaze those men, women, and children who failed to visit Uncle George or to act in a way he approved.
‘And if you don’t visit me, dear, that is where you most certainly will go,’ says Uncle George. He then takes us upstairs again to meet mum and dad.
As we go home, tightly clutching dad with one hand and mum with the other, mum leans over us and says, ‘and now don’t you love Uncle George with all your heart and soul, mind and strength?’
And we, loathing the monster, say, ‘Yes I do,’ because to say anything else would be to join the queue at the furnace. At a tender age religious schizophrenia has set in and we keep telling Uncle George how much we love him and how good he is and that we want to do only what pleases him. We observe what we are told are his wishes and dare not admit, even to ourselves, that we loathe him.”
What I have just shared with you is a fundamentalist Catholic portrait of God, a God who sends people to hell if they commit the mortal sin of skipping Mass on any given Sunday.
A fundamentalist Protestant portrait of God would feature a God who sends people to hell for not believing the right things about Jesus.
Both fundamentalist Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants are stuck at a primitive level in their understanding of God, a level captured in the Old Testament injunction “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” (Exodus 21:24)
Thus, if you don’t go to Mass or if you don’t believe the right stuff about Jesus, God is going to get even with you and send you to hell.
Fundamentalist Christians tend to assign the same value or importance to each biblical text. Each verse becomes, in effect, a separate, fixed truth.
Fundamentalist Christians fail to see that the Bible is the awesome record of how human understandings of God developed or deepened over the centuries.
Thus, in terms of forgiveness of enemies, the Bible documents how we humans – with the urging of God’s Spirit – grew from a state of unlimited vengeance: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 4:24), to the limited-in-kind vengeance of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:24).
Sadly, because this “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” commandment is stated in the Bible, many Christians stop there, believing rather simplistically that because this is a verse occurring in Holy Scripture, this must be God’s will for all time.
They fail to see that Jesus himself cited this verse only to correct it. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you ‘Do not resist evil with evil.’”
Many Christians thus limit themselves to one of the more primitive moral commandments of the Old Testament, instead of embracing the higher and deeper understanding of Jesus.
Many members and friends of Community Church have asked me: “If we are not a radical church or a fundamentalist church, then what kind of church are we?” My response is: “We are simply a church that tries to follow the way of Jesus.”
Refusing to grow into the moral vision of Jesus is one of the many ways Christians can give God a bad name, one of the many ways in which our image of God stands in need of being corrected.
Dennis Linn writes:
“For years I tried every kind of healing prayer in order to be rid of my self-righteousness. Although these prayers healed me of many things, my self-righteousness did not change. I often wondered why, when I prayed so hard, God did not heal me.
Then one day, I noticed that my self-righteousness had nearly disappeared. Why, I asked, after so many years of struggle, was there suddenly and almost automatically such a wonderful change in my life?”
Linn continues: “I changed when my image of God changed.
Most of us recognize that we become like our parents whom from early on we adore, even with all their faults. We may not realize that we also become like the God we adore.”
Linn concludes: “In every aspect of our lives, we become like the God we adore.
For example, in a time when we have the capacity to annihilate one another with nuclear weapons, many churches have issued pastoral letters on peace. Our church’s pastoral letter says that we can never use nuclear weapons against our enemies.
However, if my God can send God’s enemies to a hell inferno, then I can send a nuclear inferno on my enemies.
But if my God doesn’t treat people that way, I can’t either.
We find that a key to personal and social healing is healing our image of God.”
When I read the amazing teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, one of the questions I find myself asking is: “Does God follow God’s own rules?”
In other words, if God through Jesus admonishes us not to fight evil with evil, does that mean that God will not fight evil with evil?
If God through Jesus admonishes us to forgive those who wrong us not seven times, but seventy times seven, meaning, of course, unlimited forgiveness, does that mean that God also practices unlimited forgiveness?
You know my theology well enough by now to know that I would answer a hearty “YES!” to both these questions. I can’t see God giving us one set of commandments and God following another.
The fact that God’s standard is to be our standard comes out clearly in today’s Scripture reading. There, Jesus calls us to live out the same commandment to love God and one another as God loves Jesus and us.
There is not one standard for God and another for us. The standard for both God and us is love.
And it needs to be said that love as defined by Jesus is not the feeling-based love that we celebrate today, but the decision-based love to honor another even when we don’t feel like it and especially when they have wronged us.
To say that God can do as God pleases simply because God is God is to worship an arbitrary and ultimately immoral God who will eventually turn us into persons who are arbitrary and immoral.
We become like the God we worship.
The sad reality in the United States today is that we are a divided people, both religiously and politically. The political divide between the “democratic socialists” and those who follow Trump mirrors the religious divide between “radical” and fundamentalist Christians. Individuals and churches who do not pledge allegiance to one side or the other are too conservative for the radicals and too radical for the conservatives.
Most of us as individuals and thus our church as a whole would describe ourselves as left of center or right of center. The common word in that sentence is not “left” or “right,” but center.
And this gives us a strong hint about how we as Christians are to go about demonstrating our love for those with whom we disagree religiously and politically: we act out our love by doing everything in our power to find areas that we share in common with those with whom we disagree.
My critique of radical Christianity and fundamentalist Christianity was given because we have a responsibility, first of all, to understand where those with whom we disagree religious are coming from.
Given that knowledge, I can imagine a scenario in which a radical Christian who questions the reality of the resurrection can be reminded that Jesus himself did not require belief in his resurrection. What Jesus required was love of God and neighbor, and this is something that a “moderate” Christian and a “radical” Christian have in common. A response like this would be building a bridge instead of building a wall.
I can imagine another scenario in which a fundamentalist Christian critiques Jesus’ correction of “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” with the assertion that this is a more fundamental principle than Jesus’ “Do not use evil means to fight evil.” After all, it’s in the Bible, and it’s earlier, thus more foundational. Instead of hurling a fistful of counter texts at them, building a wall, the bridge-building thing to do would be to gently remind them that Jesus’ statement is also in the Bible and sincerely ask them to help us figure out how both texts can be true.
Again, the inspiration of the Bible is something that we “moderate” Christians share in common with Christian fundamentalists. Beginning from a place we share in common rather than beginning with dismay and debate is one of the few things that could draw us together rather than further divide us.
We “moderates” – both religiously and politically – have our work cut out for us right now. With radical Christians attacking fundamentalist Christians and Democrats attacking Republicans and vice versa, we are in a position to listen and learn from both sides, and then do whatever we can to get the antagonists to find some common ground.
Moderate churches like ours could be a real source of healing and reconciliation for our country. May God give us the strength and determination to turn God’s desire into our reality!
Have you had any experience with “radical” or “progressive” Christianity? If so, please describe.
Have you had any experience with fundamentalist Christianity? If so, please describe.
Based on your own experience, do you have any insights into how to build bridges rather than walls between people?
What is your favorite reading from the medley of readings on love? Why?
CLOSING PRAYER: Edna Hong, Contemporary
Teach us, dear Father! Teach us that you are not only a God of abstract forgiveness but that you in very fact and act can accomplish it in us. We pray not for a Sunday sense of forgiveness. We pray not for momentary acts of forgiveness. We pray for the spirit of forgiveness.
We pray for the power of will to emigrate from our present state and move into the new state your son Jesus Christ created for us, the state of forgiveness. We pray that we may become fully naturalized citizens of the state of forgiveness. We pray in your son’s name. Amen.
SUGGESTED MUSIC: Won’t You Let Me Be Your Servant? You Tube
The Servant Song with Lyrics
Patiently and Persistently, God Loves.
Relentlessly and Unconditionally, God Loves.
Now and Forever, God Loves.