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The Passing of a Great Theologian

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Everyone knows Amy Winehouse died, that the NFL lockout has ended, that a Christian terrorist slaughtered innocent children in Norway, that right-wing extremists are holding the US economy hostage in their attack on the Christian value of caring for the poor and vulnerable. But few will know that a great Christian thinker died last week. Even though I had been expecting it, even I didn’t know until I read the Harvard Divinity Dean’s “Year in Review.”

Gordon Kaufman was a Christian in the Anabaptist tradition, and shared that tradition’s commitment to non-violence. But he was also a thoroughly post-modern theologian. His “Essay on Theological Method” established the program for constructive theology. His “In Face of Mystery” was the closest thing to a summa that can exist in the discipline. His last two works, “In the beginning… creativity” and “Jesus and Creativity” gave evidence that he was still pondering the mysteries of God in his last years.

I was blessed to complete a one-on-one class with Professor Kaufman, and then to have him as my M.Div. paper adviser. It was under his tutelage that I became committed to the constructive task of building the new church. I would not have that commitment to the practical and lived experience of the people of God if not for the rigorous thinking Professor Kaufman taught me.

I pray for his family and for all he touched, and encourage those who have not studied his works to take this opportunity to do so.

Blessings,
Gary

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Lord, (sorta) heal us!

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delivered on July 24th, 2011 at Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ

I looked at Connie earlier this week and asked her, “Who the heck came up with this week’s theme?” For I chose what I thought was a Summer theme of celebration, one that matched our values as a progressive Christian covenant community, I chose Summer of Love, but some of these Sundays are, quite frankly, a challenge. Its easy enough to find Christian prophetic witness in the struggle against slavery, what stronger grounding can you have than the story of the Exodus people fleeing slavery? And its not so hard to find a Christian basis for equality and justice for women, for despite the centuries-long efforts by some traditions to deny it, women were clearly important equal partners in the ministry of those who followed Jesus, patriarchy be damned! It’s not even that hard to find scriptural support for worker’s rights, and therefore for the Christian commitment to labor justice, something Scott Walker and the Koch brothers might want to keep in mind. But it is pretty difficult to find a direct connection between the Christian faith and disabled rights. There are historical reasons for this. Continue reading →

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River of Oil, Rivers of Justice

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delivered June 26, 2011
at Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ

If you are paying any attention at all, you cannot help but be outraged. Unchecked greed has wrecked our economy, crippled our democracy, turned the financial industry into a vast criminal enterprise, and destroyed countless lives here and abroad. Political extremists use the same tricks, the same language, that were used by the National Socialists in Germany in the 1930’s. This week I went into our local auto repair shop / gas station, just down the street, and found racist images of the president and vile right-wing hatred. And these are just a couple of examples of the evil we face, and it is not personified evil, it is not the work of a Satan, it is us and our neighbors and the things we support when we spend our money… it is enough to drive us to despair! Continue reading →

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A Prayer of Dedication

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Transforming God.
As the slaves in Egypt turned mud and straw into bricks,
As others transform wheat and yeast into bread,
As you transform us into faithful disciples,
So we ask you to transform these offerings,
The fruit of our own labor,
Making of them the stuff of your kingdom,
Weaving a cloak of justice, sewing a quilt of love.
Amen.

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“Unsermon”

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June 19th, 2011

Martin Luther famously said that Trinity Sunday was the one Sunday a year when the preacher should remain silent, for there is nothing that can really be said about the mystery of the Trinity. But before you get too excited, you should also know that the late Reverend Peter Gomes said that anything worth preaching about was worth at least forty minutes. So let’s say we split the difference?

I am a great fan of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the 19th century German theologian, and especially of his central work Der christliche Glaube nach den Grundsätzen der evangelischen Kirche, translated in an oversimplification into English as The Christian Faith. And since we are discussing something as profound and dare I say mysterious as the nature of God in trinity, I thought we might use Schleiermacher to clarify. Here he writes about the unity of God: Continue reading →

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Statement on Same-Sex Marriage

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Today after church we will host a rally in support of same-sex marriage rights. I have been invited to make some remarks… here is what I have prepared…

Sisters and Brothers,

Archbishop Timothy Dolan believes that granting same-sex marriage rights is a step towards autocracy, putting us on the road to a totalitarian state. Archbishop Dolan should look in the mirror, for he chooses to use his dictatorial power within an autocratic church and his influence in society to deny me the right to follow my faith. Jesus has some pretty strong words for hypocrites…

Churches are not forced to marry anyone… I regularly turn away opposite-sex couples who simply want the church as a prop in their wedding. Dolan’s argument is a straw man at best.

Scripture has been used to justify slavery and racism, ethnic cleansing and brutal crimes, and centuries of oppression. Those who project onto God their own prejudices are worshiping a god they created, not the God that created them. I call on them to abandon their idolatry, or to at least admit that their hatred does not come from God.

It is time for communities of faith to stop acting as agents of the state, to follow their own moral code and stop imposing it on others. Same-sex marriage rights are a civil right, not a religious rite. May God forgive those who mix the two. Hear me, you game-playing politicians… freedom will win… love will win… God will win! Amen.

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Row, row, row your boat

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June 12th, 2011

Last week I told you there was no such thing as “original sin.” I take it all back. There is an original sin, but it didn’t come about because of a talking serpent and a gullible Eve, so women, you’re off the hook. A millennium and a half of guilt, right off your shoulders! No, if there was such a thing as “original sin,” I believe it would be fear. All others sins find their origin in our fearful nature. Somewhere pretty early in the development of our minds we discover that there is a lot in life that we don’t control, so we set about the task of controlling what we can, and making up stories about the things we can’t. We create little mental systems and categories to convince ourselves that we understand and exert some control over our world. It’s a silly game, mostly lies, but we can’t help ourselves. Fear drives greed and tribalism, violence and lust. It even shows up in communities of faith when they are too fearful to trust God. Continue reading →

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Dunkin’ & Sprinklin

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June 5th, 2011

God’s great creation is an amazing thing, isn’t it? Take, for example, DNA, those little chains of data that make us who we are, at least the physical part of what we are. That double helix of genetic data unzips, replicates, mutates, and, combined with a process called natural selection, produces a vast array of plants and animals that are more or less adapted to their context. It was DNA and natural selection that gave us our thumbs, these amazing opposable thumbs that sent us rocketing up the evolutionary tree, these thumbs that our cats envy… if only cats had thumbs they could open those cans, never mind that they still wouldn’t be able to read the labels to open the right cans! No, thumbs are just plain amazing, hands are just plain amazing, and with these hands, in just a few minutes, I will baptize a child. But for all the seeming magic of DNA and natural selection, for all of the miracle that is every moment in God’s creation, there is nothing magical about these hands. They’re just plain old hands, no different from yours… hands that cook and clean and paint and scratch and do all sorts of other human things you probably don’t want to hear about. So if these hands aren’t magical, it might be worth thinking about what is going to happen in this act of baptism. Continue reading →

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Waltzing through the valley of the shadow of death

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a sermon delivered  on April 3rd, 2011

We are all familiar with the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry, with his teaching and feeding and healing. I’d like to start by looking at one particular story. Jesus came upon a man near the entrance of the synagogue. The man was on a mat and was crippled. The man said to Jesus, “Master, I know that if you wish to, you can make me whole again.” And Jesus said to the man, “You just sit there on your mat. But I forgive your sins, and if you believe in me, and give a portion of the alms given to you by passersby, then, after your miserable life has ended, you’ll go to heaven, and there will be angels carrying trays of manna, and the dog you had as a child will be there, and everyone you have ever known will be waiting for you. But in the meantime, just sit there on your mat and suffer. It’ll build character. It’s good for you.” And Jesus walked away, and the crippled man lived for the day he would die and go to heaven. Continue reading →

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Defining the Bible

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It seems like a silly exercise, attempting to define a text that is so hotly contested. But you are always at a disadvantage when you have to debate using the terms of your opponent, and the Protestant Mainline has for too long allowed the proponents of the selective literalist heresy (the so-called “fundamentalists”) to define the terms. We speak in rebuttal, state what scripture is not, but rarely do we make a positive claim about scripture. I believe that if we are to re-engage scripture in a deep and meaningful way, in a way that allows us to seek biblical guidance for our very different contexts, we must have some operating definition of this pillar of Protestant belief. So consider this a working draft, a synthesis of the many responses I have given to Christians of every stripe, from my UCC sisters and brothers to members of the radicalized religious right, when asked to define my understanding of “The Bible.”

I would love to hear from colleagues and friends who can help me clarify and correct. This post will not be acceptable to those readers who belong to a religious trajectory that is in fundamental disagreement, especially one that claims a perfect text or interpretation. This is not the forum for that debate. Many blessings- Gary

The Holy Bible is a collection of religious writings composed and edited over a period of a thousand plus years. It tells the story of multiple trajectories of belief, all originating with a Semitic people commonly known as the Hebrews. The earliest texts, composed (with small exceptions) in Hebrew, are shared by both the religious trajectory known as Christianity and the trajectory known as Rabbinic Judaism, with both groups adding material in the years after the Jewish War (approx. 70 CE) to create an accepted canon. In the Christian tradition the additional materials were composed in Greek and are referred to as the “new” testament or covenant. This material reflects the belief that Jesus (circa -3 CE to 30 CE)  initiated or taught a new relationship between humans and the divine, telling the story of his earthly ministry and collecting documents from early Christian communities.

The texts preserve multiple understandings of the human relationship with the divine. Conceptions of God recorded in scripture include belief in multiple deities, in a  universalist monotheism, in an anthropomorphic deity filled with ego and rage, in a Platonic deity that is unchanging and incapable of relationship. The texts include history, poetry, fiction, legal codes and correspondence, and often reveal more about the historical and cultural contexts in which they were composed and edited than in the era they pretend to cover. The Bible is the story of the winners, the version accepted by those whose understanding became authorized, that was associated with earthly power, yet in its pages can be found alternative narratives, the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. At it’s best, the Bible is intimate and compelling, a very human story of the individual and communal search for right relationship with God. At it’s worst, the Bible is a tool for the creation of false gods, of idols onto which we project our own desires and prejudices.

The Bible is composed of ancient texts written in ancient languages and recovered in multiple versions of often fragmentary manuscripts. There has never been a single universally accepted version or translation of these texts, as no such Bible ever existed. There is no single authorized interpretation.

Contemporary Christians must use caution when attempting to interpret this ancient complex text, placing passages in their original context as well as following the theological trajectories in the two millennia since the text took it basic form. Progressive Christians can gain the most in their engagement with scripture when they combine the technical knowledge of scriptural interpretation with their own context as a living and practicing covenant community.

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