God talk. A clergy person once accused me of talking about God too much. I didn’t think that was possible. My intent today is to share with you my theology. Usually clergy have months to ease folks into what we believe; I don’t have that luxury. I could just preach fluff, but I have more respect for you than that. And as we all know in our congregational roots and in the UCC there is freedom of the pulpit—but you don’t have to agree with me—the priesthood of all believers. I am not telling you what you have to believe. I’m sharing this with you so that prayers, liturgies and my sermons make more sense. For example, I never ask God to be present, so I changed one word in your usual liturgy. We’ll get to that later.
First a bit about process theology, which began as a philosophy by Alfred North Whitehead in the 1930’s. Claremont Seminary in California is a center for Process Theology, and I understand there’s also a Chicago School of thought around Process Theology. So, I didn’t just make this up. Far greater minds than mine did this work. As a preacher’s kid, hearing theology all my life, I was relieved and delighted when Don White explained Process Theology to us in my first class at United Theological Seminary.
In Process Theology God doesn’t know the future. God knows all the possibilities. Out of God’s pure, amazing love for all God’s creation God is always working for peace and harmony throughout the world. The true wonder of God is that God knows in every single millisecond everyone’s choice: everyone’s choice should be for there to be peace and harmony throughout the world. And in the next second, given all the choices in the world, God knows what each of our choices should be. And on and on and on. God doesn’t control us and I don’t believe it’s about free will; if God gave us free will I’d expect God at some point to be so frustrated with us that God would take free will away and fix things—at least I would hope so. No, God doesn’t control us—God is limited by our choices. God challenges, influences, strongly suggests, but God cannot control us. Many of us know folks who believe that whatever happens is what God planned. I imagine some of you may have had relatives tell you over turkey and sweet potatoes that the last presidential election was God’s will. I am particularly saddened when bad things happen to people, such as illness and death, and they immediately wonder what they did wrong that God is punishing them, or they believe God must have a reason for their child being killed by a drunk driver. I can’t worship a God who passes such judgment, or who purposefully hurts us to teach us or someone else a lesson. I can’t. So why do bad things happen?
And why is the world such a mess? Because we have another influence in our lives and that’s our past. Everything we’ve experienced, every book we’ve read, every Sunday School class, or sermon, or movie, or our parents, our teachers, our friends, our dates, our families, sports people, entertainers, politicians—everything we’ve experienced in our lives also influences us in every millisecond. There are two powerful influences in our lives. Sometimes our past and God are in sync and sometimes not. Too often our past overpowers God’s influence. Our very understanding of God comes from our past and influences how we act. One’s understanding of God can actually help or hinder God’s goal of peace and harmony. Part of our calling is to help put good stuff in people’s past so that good stuff can help God influence the world for peace and harmony.
That’s the basic outline of my understanding of process theology. God doesn’t know the future; God only functions out of a pure love for all creation; God knows what will bring peace and harmony to the world; God influences us to make choices that will bring about peace and harmony. But God doesn’t control us. Our past also influences us and that’s why we don’t have peace and harmony throughout the world. Does it sound too easy, too simple? If it was, the world would be a far different place. Yet, at the same time here is mystery. God’s influence and people’s response can sometimes cause amazing things to happen. Regardless, I can worship a God who is limited by our choices, but not a God who could fix this crazy, unjust world and chooses not to do so. C. Robert Mesle in his book on Process Theology says that if we saw someone in trouble it would be expected that we would help. His question is why don’t we hold God to the same standard.
Here are some other things I believe. I mentioned at the beginning that I never ask God to be present. When I pray I assume God is present—always present. What I ask for is openness. Openness so that God can influence me. That’s why at the Great Thanksgiving I changed one word. “God is with us,” rather than “God be with us.”
I don’t ask God for mercy because mercy implies an abusive relationship. God’s perfect love God cannot abuse us. Because God cannot abuse us I can trust God. And to be as open as possible to God’s influence we must be able to trust God completely. It doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen. It is life, it is others’ choices, it is my choices, not God’s. I noticed last week during prayer time that no one used, “God in your mercy. . .”
So, let’s talk more about Jesus. I love Jesus. I wish I had known him, but I’m glad I know of him. He was a loving, charismatic, compassionate, challenging, bracing, strategizing, devoted, faithful, sensitive, smart, wily man. In this day and age I’m not sure he’d be considered manly enough for some to follow him—too bad. He valued all people. One of my favorite texts is Mark 10:13-16. People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them and blessed them.
He told us. He taught that we are to be strong in the face of injustice, that we are to love others, and that we are to be willing to sacrifice—even to die—for what we believe, particularly in the face of astronomical oppression, fear and greed. Jesus wept when a friend died. Jesus said that we are to love our God with all our heart, soul and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. I understand Jesus to consider everyone his neighbor and we are called to do the same: to love everyone whether we agree with them theologically, politically, socially or culturally. That means we want what’s best for everyone. Everyone.
Jesus was open to the influence of God as God was seeking peace and harmony. Valuing people, women, children and foreigners included. He was all about healing, teaching, loving those around him, valuing all people. He was not a Christian—they didn’t exist yet—he was a Jew speaking in that culture to those people who were oppressed by the Romans.
His influence, as we know, continued long after he died. In today’s text, his followers were embarking on a new way of living, trying to follow in his way. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, breaking bread and prayers. They had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. They spent time in the temple, in their homes, fellowshipping with one another. They praised God and had the goodwill of all people. The goodwill of all people. I wonder what they would have done with the Sanctuary movement, or tax codes, or health care?
The Bible. Parts of it are inspired, parts are relevant for today, parts are to be taken seriously, parts are to be argued with, parts are to be taken literally. We each—even those who say they take the whole Bible literally—pick and choose what we take literally. I wonder how many literalists take today’s texts literally. I take literally that we are to love our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. I do not take literally the texts that are assumed to condemn LGBTQ people. No thanks, I’ll pick and choose those parts I take literally, those parts I take seriously and those parts I argue with. John Thomas, former President of the UCC, often said we don’t take the Bible literally, we take it seriously.
Now you know my theology, my love for and understanding of Jesus, and my understanding of the Bible. So, now I have two quick stories to tell you, both of which I heard on public radio. Think about which person you believe is more open to God’s influence. Who is helping God create the new heaven and earth as described in our Isaiah reading (one of my favorite texts)?
There’s a man who has a blog and writes about taking our country back to how it originally was. I thought well, that’s amazing, he wants to return it to the Native Americans. Nope, he wants to return it to being 90% white and 90% Christian just as it was in the beginning. He was a little hazy on how to accomplish this, but first and foremost was not letting any more Muslims into our country. The second story is about Luke Keller—a white Southern Baptist from near Georgia. Quoting from PRI:
When Luke Keller woke up to the news that Trump would be president, he picked up the phone. “I immediately called all of my Muslim friends and just reassured them that nothing’s going to happen to them, nothing’s going to happen to their families…. The United States, we have our problems but we take care of ours.” The 27-year-old Keller has lots of Muslim friends. He runs a nonprofit outside of Atlanta called The Lantern Project that trains refugees in trades. Many of them come from Muslim-majority countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. “[The training program] teaches them certified construction and we do welding, we do pipe fitting, we do masonry, we do carpentry, we do electrical,” Keller says. “Our job is to have these men and women come through the program and finish and be able to obtain high-paying jobs in the construction field.” Keller walked away from what could have been a high-paying job in the construction business himself.
When asked why, he explains that his faith is the biggest reason. “To me as a Christian, a follower of Jesus, he called us to love our neighbors, period. Something that’s become very important to me is that we are not loving our neighbors well,” Keller says. “I’ve chosen to sacrifice to show love to these men and women who are coming in from other countries, because the second part to that is, if not me, then who else?” One line of questioning that Keller says he gets all the time goes like this: What about American-born workers? Why not help them? He points out that the training program is open to anyone, not just refugees. And Keller says it’s all about supply and demand. “We struggle finding good laborers. That seems to be the major issue, I would say, with 99 percent of the construction companies out there. They just struggle finding good laborers,” Keller says. When I ask if these refugees are taking jobs away from Americans, Keller says, “They are absolutely not taking jobs away from Americans.” “We’ve tabooed the construction industry,” he says. “Someone would rather sit in an office making $30,000 a year, when they could be working out in the field making double, sometimes triple that.”
One of the current students is Najibullah Zahedi, who’s working on his certification as a contractor. Zahedi came to Georgia as a refugee with his family in 2014. Back home in Afghanistan, he worked as a translator with the US military. Zahedi says he had to leave his home country because the Taliban wanted him dead. “In their idea, we are infidel[s], because we help the American or other group,” Zahedi says. Zahedi has carved a round, 2-foot-wide US congressional seal out of solid oak. He is hoping to present it as a token of thanks to American lawmakers who approved his family’s legal status.
At the construction training school, Keller tells me he has this kind of conversation often. When people find out that he’s helping Muslims come to America, they express serious doubts. But many Americans, Keller says, have never even met a Muslim before. So, he talks about the issue in terms that his fellow Christians can understand. “I know personally, getting to have conversations, developing relationships with these Muslim men, who are now some of…my best friends, they’re the most reliable, most dependable, most loving, most generous, most Jesus-like people I know,” Keller says. “Yeah, the most Jesus-like people I know are these Muslim men.”
What a difference between these two men. I want to be like Luke Keller. As I heard this I realized I didn’t know any Muslims well enough to give them a reassurance call. He’s more like Jesus too—working constructively against oppression. That’s where the hope is. In our loving God, in our being open to that loving God, working with God and others for peace and harmony throughout the world.