Theology Sermon #3— Hosea 11:1-9; Psalm 46; Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 8:31-39
Ted Grimsrud—Shalom Mennonite Congregation – November 12, 2006
Word association: “God”
When I was about twelve years old, I decided that I wanted to be a journalist. However, by the time I finished my journalism degree I had decided journalism was not for me. I didn’t really like my professors or fellow j-school students. I had the sense that if I wanted to be journalist I would have to start smoking and be a much pushier kind of person.
About the time I finished college, I had discovered theology. I got sucked in, and the focus of the rest of my life was pretty well decided. I remember when I told my parents of my decision to pursue church work and theology rather than journalism, my dad (who was a preacher’s kid) said, sure we will support whatever you decide, but you need to be aware that if you go that route you won’t make much money. I suppose he knew what he was talking about.
One thing I learned in j-school, though stuck with me. When you write a news story, you need to use the “Six Ws” – these provide your basic questions. Who, what, when, where, why, and how.
Well, I still have some journalistic impulses. I started thinking of doing theology like a news story. I want to define theology as reflection on, as self-awareness about, our central values. How do we order our sense of what matters most? What is our hierarchy of values? And how do the way we live, the choices we make, the priorities we follow – how do these express our hierarchy of values? That’s our “theology.”
The word “theology” means, literally, the study of God (the Greek word for god is “theos” – as in “Theo-dore,” “gift of God”). Seeing theology as our hierarchy of values, we could say that which stands at the top of our hierarchy of values, that which shapes how we actually live our lives is our “god.”
As we reflect as Christians on what shapes our lives, traditional doctrines may help order our reflections. We then talk about the doctrine of Christ (“Christology”), the doctrine of God (called “theology proper”), the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and so on. I think, though, that we need always to keep our doctrines anchored in real life – thinking of them in relation to how we live. I’m not interested in an abstract, intellectualized, jargon-laden doctrinalizing of faith. Theological reflection should help us understand how we live, why, what values matter – and to be more self-aware about our faith and its relation to our lives.
I believe the doctrine of Jesus Christ, Christology, should be our master doctrine. That is, as we confess Jesus as the definitive revelation of God, we are saying (or, we should be saying) that in Jesus’ life and teaching we see a model for prioritizing our values and convictions. Jesus’ faith, Jesus’ convictions, Jesus’ values, Jesus’ way of living, become our normative model.
Today I want to talk about the doctrine of God. Our understanding of God will be very, very different if we look at God through Jesus-centered lens rather than to start with some kind of definition of God that doesn’t pay much attention to Jesus. So, as a crypto-journalist (or is it pseudo-journalist, or maybe quasi-journalist), I will approach the doctrine of God as a news story, following questions suggested by the Six Ws.
Who is God? What does God do? When do we see God? Where is God present? Why care about God? How does God work? Seeking to answer these questions might help us get a sense of “news of God.”
What would our news story about God say? Well, are we looking for good news or bad news? I think of an old country song, “bad news travels like wildfire, good news travels slow; folks all call me wildfire, ’cause I’m bad news everywhere I go.”
Many people want a God that is bad news. Once there were two neighboring shopkeepers who were longtime bitter rivals. One night, an angel came to one shopkeeper, hoping to bring some good news into the situation. The angel told the man, “I am here to bless you. I will grant you anything you wish – only, whatever I give you, I will give your neighbor twice as much of the same thing.”
The old man thought for a second and exclaimed, “Praise God, I knew he would answer my prayers. This is what I want; strike me blind in one eye!”… The God this man wanted was bad news, a God who would smite his enemy.
Throughout history, God has often been associated with human vengeance and retribution. What kind of values, what priorities in life would lead people to construct a view of God that centered on bad news. Why would we need a God of wrath? Hand in hand with a God of wrath, we also find in the Christian tradition a God who is distant, above the fray, without passions, unchangeable, incomprehensible, always the actor never re-actor. Why do we need this kind of separate-from-us God?
This is what the Westminster Confession of Faith says about God: God “is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own power.”
What kind of “news” would we most likely associate with such a God? Intimidating, fearful, impersonal. Not much like Jesus (or Jesus’ portrayal of God).
Now, there is a word for “news” in the Bible (it’s not “journalism”). It’s “gospel.” The gospel is news – and a certain kind of news, good news, glad tidings. If we consider news of God in light of Jesus, we will see why the news is good news. Christian theology should be theology as if Jesus mattered. Christian theology should be theology that reflects Jesus’ own hierarchy of values. The Christian doctrine of God should echo Jesus’ own portrayal of God.
Let’s return to our six Ws – though I will only take time to touch on two of them.
Who is God? And, Where is God present? This is what we learn as we pursue these questions in relation to Jesus.
Who is God? God is Jesus’ Abba. When we hear Jesus say “father” we too easily misunderstand his point. He’s not saying, God is male. He’s not saying God is the great, all-powerful patriarch standing above everyone else. No. Jesus says God is like a loving parent. He uses Abba as a term of endearment.
Think of it like this. You are a young child and you see your parent with a hand raised. Do you flinch, expecting a blow of discipline? Or do you reach out your hand to share in the embrace you know is coming? Two very different views of the parent. Two very different views of God. Jesus’ Abba is the one who reaches out to embrace.
The great story that shows this is Jesus’ parable, “The Prodigal Son.” Remember when the wayward son returns home, beaten down by his failures, hoping simply to be hired as a servant to his father. “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20).
The prophets anticipated Jesus. Hosea quotes God, “My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath” (11:8-9).
Who is God? Jesus’ loving parent, one whose holiness leads to mercy.
And, Where is God present? If Jesus shows us God, we see God present in the brokenness, in the pain and suffering, in the humiliation and shame of vulnerable humanity. God’s holiness leads God to bring healing to sinners, not condemnation. God does not push imperfect human beings away. Rather, God in Jesus does enter the fray, eating and drinking with sinners and lepers and others in need.
Many of you have seen Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcut, “Christ of the breadline.” This portrait of Jesus standing with hungry people in a Depression-era breadline became a symbol for the Catholic Worker movement. The Catholic Workers for several generations now have sought to make clear to the world where God is present – with people in need, with the vulnerable, with those excluded by upright society.
God is also present wherever new life enters the world – literally when babies are born, more figuratively when one’s cold heart is melted, when dead relationships are restored, when hope takes the place of discouragement, when faith is kindled in the ashes of despair. Where there is life there is hope; where there is life there is God.
God is present in melted hearts. The late C.P. Ellis was a leader in the Klu Klux Klan in the 1960s who told his story to Studs Terkel. His father had died when Ellis was in the eighth grade. He’d had to quit school to go to work. He married young and had four kids. His family barely hung on. “I will never forget,” he said, “outside of my house was a 265-gallon oil drum, and I never did get enough money to fill up that oil drum. What I would do every night, I would run up to the store and buy five gallons of oil and climb up the ladder and pour it in that drum. I could hear that five gallons when it hits the bottom of that oil drum, splatters, and it sounds like it’s nothin’ in there. But it would keep the house warm for the night. Next day you’d have to do the same thing.” (222-3)
“I really began to get bitter. I didn’t know who to blame. I tried to find somebody. I began to blame it on black people. I had to hate somebody. Hatin’ America [in general] is hard to do because you can’t see it to hate it. You gotta have somethin’ to look at to hate.” (223) Ellis joined the Klan; finding a sense of power and purpose. “I didn’t like blacks. I didn’t want to associate with ’em. Blacks, Jews, or Catholics. My father said: ‘Don’t have anything to do with ’em.’ I didn’t.” (226)
Ellis’s entire life changed due to an encounter with Ann Atwater, a black women he served with on a committee formed to deal with problems in the schools. Both Ellis and Atwater, coming from opposite positions, experienced much resistance from their own communities, just for being willing to talk.
They shared their frustrations one night: “Ann said: ‘My daughter came home cryin’ every day. She said her teacher was makin’ fun of her mother in front of the other kids.’ I said: ‘Boy, the same thing happened to my kid. White liberal teacher was makin’ fun of Tim Ellis’s father. In front of other peoples. He came home cryin’.’ At this point I begin to see, here we are, two people from the far ends of the fence, havin’ identical problems. From that moment on, I tell ya, that gal and I worked together good. The amazing thing about it, her and I had cussed each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know what we had in common.” (229)
The changes continued in Ellis. “The whole world was openin’ up, and I was learnin’ new truths that I had never learned before. I was beginnin’ to look at a black person, to shake hands with him, and see him as a human being. I hadn’t got rid of all this stuff. I’ve still got a little bit of it. But somethin’ was happenin’ to me. [I felt like I was] born again. It was a new life. I didn’t have these sleepless nights I used to have when I was active in the Klan. I could sleep at night and feel good about it.” (230)
“I tell people there’s a tremendous possibility in this country to stop wars, the battles, the struggles, the fights between people. People say: ‘That’s an impossible dream. You sound like Martin Luther King.’ ([Imagine,] an ex-Klansman sounding like Martin Luther King.) I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. It happened in my life. It’s happened in other peoples’ lives, too.” (232-3) “Since I changed, I’ve set down and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King. I listen to it and tears come to my eyes ’cause I know what he’s sayin’ now. I know what’s happenin’. When he says God can heal our divisions, I know he’s speaking the truth.” (233)
A second story of God’s presence began last summer, June 30, 5:45 pm, to be precise. That was when our grandson Elias entered the world. I have to admit, a bit sheepishly, that the joy of parents and grandparents has generally seemed a bit abstract to me – sure, it’s nice when someone else’s child is born, but what’s the big deal? I kind of forgot how I felt when Johan was born. That was a long time ago.
Well, with Elias’ birth, that all changed. What a gift, what a sense of the presence of God, what a ray of hope! Now, when I think of a child being born, I think of the miracle of creation. I think of the proverb that says rather than cursing the darkness we should light a candle. I feel a lot more invested in the future. It’s just amazing to observe the new person – beautiful, fragile, like a sponge soaking in life. Where else could this all come from except God?
I admire Elias’s parents, Jill and Johan, so much – and all others who take this step into the future. But what better way to resist the darkness? What better way to discover God’s presence in our world? What better way to resist our tendency to settle for comfort and withdrawal? What better way to take on the huge challenges that face us all as we seek to sustain life in a world that seems so bent toward death?
Let me close with words from Steve Earle’s Christmas song, “Nothing But a Child”:
Nothing but a child could wash these tears away
Or guide a weary world into the light of day
And nothing but a child could help erase these miles
So once again we all can be children for awhile
Now all around the world, in every little town
Everyday is heard a precious little sound
And every mother kind and every father proud
Looks down in awe to find another chance allowed