Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Bearing Witness Through the Spirit -- A Meditation for Holy Wednesday

Acts 1:8

8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

It is the Wednesday before Easter – a sort of in-between time. It is a time of waiting and wondering what will happen next. Jesus has entered the city in triumph, and now is teaching daily in the Temple. According to the Gospels, the authorities are worried and plotting to rid themselves of a person they believe could upset the political balance that had agreed upon by the religious leaders and the Roman authorities.  The leaders feared the people, and Jesus seemed to be the kind of person who might stir up the hornets’ nest. So, in their mind, it was best to get rid of him and to their delight a disgruntled or may be disappointed disciple offered to turn him over to them (Luke 22:1-6).

As we read Acts 1:8, Good Friday and Easter are behind us, and Pentecost still awaits us. Once again,  we’re in an in-between time. The situation is a bit different, but to the disciples there is still a lot of fear to  be overcome. Now, Jesus, getting ready to depart, offers them a word of comfort and guidance. He tells them that they will receive empowerment when the Spirit comes – in that they should find comfort, for Jesus is not leaving them alone. He also offers a word of guidance – indeed, a word of challenge. They will be, when the Spirit comes, his witnesses in the neighborhood, beyond the neighborhood, and on to the ends of the earth.

As we wait for Good Friday and for Easter, what is it that stands at the tip of our tongues that needs to be said? What word of witness is God encouraging us to share? As we contemplate that word, the next question is – where are we called to share the word? Is it in the neighborhood, or is our place of witness farther from home? In this passage, we hear Jesus laying out a pattern of witness, concentric circles of influence. W e start in the neighborhood, but we don’t stay there.

Reprinted from the Central Woodward Christian Church 2010 Lenten Devotional (edited by John McCauslin).

2010 Academy of Parish Clergy Book of the Year and Top Ten List

Below is a press release from the Academy of Parish Clergy, for which I edit a journal called Sharing the Practice.  I did not, however, participate in the choosing of these books, beyond making my suggestions. 

Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in MinistryThe Academy of Parish Clergy, Inc. announces the 2010 Book of the Year Award to be Tending To The Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry by Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly (Alban Institute). The Book of the Year Award is given to the best book published for parish ministry in the previous year. In addition, the Reference Book of the Year Award is given to Revelation: A Commentary in The New Testament Library by Brian K. Blount (Westminster/John Knox Press). These awards will be made at the Annual Conference of the Academy, April 20-22, 2010, at the Sienna Center, in Racine, Wisconsin.

In addition to the Book of the Year, the Academy has selected the following books  to complete its list of the  Top Ten Books for Parish Ministry published in 2009.  These appear in no specific order.

A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne)

At the Scent of Water: The Ground of Hope in the Book of Job by J. Gerald Janzen (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Beyond the Yellow Ribbon: Ministering to Returning Combat Veterans by David A. Thompson (Abingdon Press)

Kindling Desire For God: Preaching As Spiritual Direction by Kay L. Northcutt (Fortress Press)

Preaching From Memory to Hope by Thomas G. Long (Westminster/John Knox Press)

The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox (HarperOne)

The Power to Comprehend With All the Saints: The Formation and Practice of a Pastor-Theologian ed. by Wallace M. Allston Jr. and Cynthia A. Jarvis (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

The Ten Commandments (Interpretation Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church) by Patrick D. Miller (Westminster/John Knox Press)

Toxic Spirituality: Four Enduring Temptations of Christian Faith by Eric W. Gritsch (Fortress Press)

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Word in this World -- Review

The Word in this World: Two SermonsTHE WORD IN THIS WORLD: Two Sermons by Karl Barth.  Edited by Kurt I. Johanson.  Introduction by William H. Willimon.  Translated by Christopher Asprey.    Vancouver, BC: Regent University Press, 2007.  66 pages.

    Karl Barth has been hailed as the greatest theologian of the Twentieth Century.  He has left a legacy that continues to be felt by the church, despite the fact that his death occurred four decades back.  Indeed, I can say that my own theological journey has been influenced by Barth’s work – his thoughts on the Word of God helping me come to grips with the biblical story.  But Barth was not only a profound and influential theologian, he was also a preacher.  William Willimon, writing in the introduction to the booklet, notes that Barth saw his theological work, especially the Church Dogmatics,  as being a support to the work of the preacher serving in the local church.   

    Recently I had the opportunity to review a collection of sermons that Barth preached while serving as pastor of the Swiss community at Safenwil (The Early Preaching of Karl Barth, Edited with Commentary by William H. Willimon, WJK Press, 2009).  That review caught the eye of Karl Johanson, who asked me to review a small book composed of two sermons preached by Barth. 

    The two sermons in this collection, which also carries an introduction by Willimon, come out of two very different eras of Barth’s career.   As such, they set in firm contrast the early and the later Barth.  One is quite practical and seemingly relevant to the day, while the second is focused entirely on the theological understanding of the text.

    The first sermon was preached shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, and appears here for the first time in English translation.  It is a fascinating sermon and very unlike the Barth we’ve come to know as the profoundly biblical theologian.  But, at this point, Barth has yet to make his mark as a theologian.  Instead, he is a very young  twenty-six-year-old pastor serving the Protestant church at Safenwil, Switzerland.  At this point in time, he has yet to break with his theological masters over their support of the German war machine.  He has yet to write his provocative Romans commentary that shook the theological world.  Indeed, this sermon predates by five years the earliest sermon in the collection edited by Willimon.    In this sermon, which Willimon calls “touchingly pastoral, in many of the ways Barth would condemn as ‘pastoral’” (p. 19), Barth seems almost obsessed by the details of the sinking of the Titanic.  It seems relevant, focused on the issues of the day, but one wonders how relevant this event was to the people living at Safenwil.  While there are theological reflection and exegetical work present in the sermon -- focused on Psalm 103 –  this work is largely lost in the shuffle of his reflections on the loss of life and the arrogance of builder and captain.   He wonders how a ship could be equipped with a playground, pool, and Turkish baths, but not have sufficient life boats to carry to safety passengers and crew.  Barth’s message is twofold.  One is rooted in reflections on human sin and guilt, together with the promise of mercy.  The focus of Barth’s attention is not on God, but on human hubris and the need to be more concerned about human life.  Indeed, whatever is theological in the message is overshadowed by the details of the event itself. 

    The second sermon was preached in 1934 at Bremen.  Adolph Hitler had only recently come to power, and the Confessing Church had, just days before, spoken out clearly against Hitler’s encroachments on the church.  Indeed, just two days later, Barth would lose his position at the University of Bonn, forcing his move to Basel.  Whereas the first sermon was preached by a twenty-six-year-old beginning preacher, this one came from the lips of a forty-eight-year-old man who had become a distinguished and influential theologian – not just in Germany but around the world.  The contrast between the two sermons is marked.  In the first sermon Barth is obsessed with the contemporary scene, but in this sermon, with the German church and people facing a storm that would wreak havoc on Germany and the world, the contemporary scene is strangely absent.  This is a sermon focused on text and theological reflection.  Hitler is not mentioned once.  Indeed, nothing is said of the current situation.  Instead, the focus is on Peter’s relationship with Jesus. 

    The Bremen sermon is a verse, by verse exposition of Matthew 14:22-33, wherein Jesus puts the disciples in a boat, heads off to pray, and then in the middle of the night, crosses the water to join the disciples.  Peter, first spooked and then emboldened, asks if he might cross over to Jesus – a request that Jesus grants.  Peter will sink, once his attention is drawn away from Jesus by the coming storm.  All is not lost, however, for Jesus reaches out and lifts him to safety.  It is a well-known and oft-preached text, and Barth finds much to ponder.  Indeed, in it is a word to church about God’s rule and its faithfulness to the cause of God.  In it the recipient is reminded that God alone is sovereign, even as other voices would argue differently.  In a telling moment in the sermon, Barth pictures Jesus crossing over to the boat, and the people in the boat cry out in fear that this is a ghost.  Barth responds that if this were a ghost – indeed, if this figure was a figment of their imagination then they should fear.  He declares to his listeners:
    A Jesus who is not really Jesus but a figment of the pious imagination, the product of our revolutionary or reactionary dreams, the mirage of our hopelessness or our enthusiasm – a Jesus like this certainly may and must be feared, for in fact this imaginary Jesus could only magnify the distress we experience in our lives and in the church (p. 51). 

Think for a moment that these words were spoken to people confronted by efforts to revision the theology of the church to support a Nazi ideology.  He called for the people to give allegiance to the biblical Jesus, the one that stood in contrast to the one being offered by the officials in church and state – and yet nothing directly is stated. 

    The contrast between the two sermons is so great that one would wonder if they could come from the same person, and yet they did.  Willimon, in his introduction, appreciates the effort given to the first sermon, a sermon that is thoroughly pastoral and relevant, and yet he finds it lacking in substance.  He chooses to embrace the second kind of sermon, even if it seems to lack relevance.  He appreciates that the times had become so dangerous “that Barth dare not take his eyes off a God who saves, who judges, who teaches, who kills and makes alive” (p. 21).

    The book is brief, and yet the reader will be well served.  The preacher might look at the contrasting sermons and consider which of the sermons is closest to hers or his own sermons.  What lessons can be drawn – both in terms of rhetoric and in theology?  Kurt Johanson is to be commended for making these two sermons available for the first time in English translation.  Attending to them will prove beneficial, whether or not one is a preacher. 

Easter Song

As we prepare to celebrate Easter Sunday -- knowing that we must first go through Good Friday -- I share a favorite song of Easter.  It's a song that goes back to my adolescent days-- Barry McGuire and the 2nd Chapter of Acts came through Klamath Falls several times, and so I was able to hear the song performed live.  So, here is Easter Song written and sung by the 2nd Chapter of Acts.

A Cry from the Cross: Sermons for Good Friday

I realize that Good Friday is only a few days away, but if you're in need of a resource for preaching or for devotional use that looks at the Seven Last Words of Christ, I'd like to suggest my collection of sermons entitled A Cry from the Cross (CSS, 2008).

These sermons were preached over a course of seven years, as I participated in an ecumenical Good Friday service in Santa Barbara.  For those living in the vicinity of Troy, MI -- Central Woodward Christian Church is hosting a similar service on Friday at 1:00 PM.  There will be seven preachers and seven words -- along with a joint choir. 

A Covenant for Civility: Come Let Us Reason Together

The rhetoric has gotten nasty.  There are preachers praying for the death of the President and members of Congress.  Aspersions are being cast upon the motivations and salvation of other Christians.  The tone has gotten so nasty that it's difficult not to get caught up in it.  In response, Jim Wallis has drawn up a "Covenant for Civility," to which he has invited other Christians to sign.  More than 100 Christian leaders have signed up, representing folks from across the ideological spectrum, from Jim Wallis to Chuck Colson.  

I'm in agreement with the statements that I've reproduced below.  I'm wondering how we can move the conversation in this direction.  As I consider this statement, I'm cognizant that I have said or written things in the past about folks I disagree with that have been less than civil.  So, as part of the problem I seek to be part of the solution.  I invite you to read and consider your response.





Come Let Us Reason Together 


How good and pleasant it is when the people of God live together in unity.—Psalm 133:1

As Christian pastors and leaders with diverse theological and political beliefs, we have come together to make this covenant with each other, and to commend it to the church, faith-based organizations, and individuals, so that together we can contribute to a more civil national discourse. The church in the United States can offer a message of hope and reconciliation to a nation that is deeply divided by political and cultural differences. Too often, however, we have reflected the political divisions of our culture rather than the unity we have in the body of Christ. We come together to urge those who claim the name of Christ to “ put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32). 

1) We commit that our dialogue with each other will reflect the spirit of the Scriptures, where our posture toward each other is to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

2) We believe that each of us, and our fellow human beings, are created in the image of God. The respect we owe to God should be reflected in the honor and respect we show to each other in our common humanity, particularly in how we speak to each other. With the tongue we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God …. this ought not to be so” (James 3:9, 10).

3) We pledge that when we disagree, we will do so respectfully, without impugning the other’s motives, attacking the other’s character, or questioning the other’s faith, and recognizing in humility that in our limited, human opinions, “we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We will therefore “be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2).

4) We will ever be mindful of the language we use in expressing our disagreements, being neither arrogant nor boastful in our beliefs: “Before destruction one’s heart is haughty, but humility goes before honor” (Proverbs 18:12).

5) We recognize that we cannot function together as citizens of the same community, whether local or national, unless we are mindful of how we treat each other in pursuit of the common good in the common life we share together. Each of us must therefore “put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

6) We commit to pray for our political leaders—those with whom we may agree, as well as those with whom we may disagree. “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made … for kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).

7) We believe that it is more difficult to hate others, even our adversaries and our enemies, when we are praying for them. We commit to pray for each other, those with whom we agree and those with whom we may disagree, so that together we may strive to be faithful witnesses to our Lord, who prayed “ that they may be one” (John 17:22).

We pledge to God and to each other that we will lead by example in a country where civil discourse seems to have broken down. We will work to model a better way in how we treat each other in our many faith communities, even across religious and political lines. We will strive to create in our congregations safe and sacred spaces for common prayer and community discussion as we come together to seek God’s will for our nation and our world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Subversiveness of the Lord's Prayer

Over the course of Lent, and leading into Easter, I have been preaching a series of sermons exploring the Lord's Prayer.  My understanding of this prayer was challenged when I picked up a book by Michael Crosby called The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us (Orbis, 2002).  I found the book lying a table of resources for our congregation's Advent prayer vigil.  I'd not seen the book before, so I picked up during my chosen prayer time, and began to skim through it.  I decided to take it home and read through it as I made my way through the prayer, and it became my guide.  I appreciated the author's interpretation because it highlighted the subversive nature of Jesus' ministry.  It reminded me that Jesus came bearing a message very different from that being promulgated in the society of the day.  It was a message that had deep roots in the prophetic tradition, which called for justice and a new society.  

Crosby notes that it is important that we hear this subversive message in our own day.
In the first-century world, to worship another god as "Father" -- rather than worshiping the ultimate householder in Rome -- was subversive to the whole imperial system.  That subversive nature of Jesus' Prayer has been silenced today.  I believe there are good reasons to resuscitate it. (p. 18).
 He warns us to be careful about simply making the prayer a formula, which can be repeated without any thought as to its meaning.  He continues by asking whether the way we pray supports the status quo.  Consider:

Whereas our ancestors in faith worshiped in ways that resisted their surroundings  of entrenched religion and empire, we have become embedded in religious ritual and sold out to the prevailing economy. To the degree we "buy into" such cultures we have "sold out" Jesus' prayer.  (p. 19).

I will look at this prayer in a very different way following this series of sermons, sermons that may have been directed as much at me as at the congregation.  I went into the series thinking about what it is we're asking for in this prayer, and I came out with a challenging answer.  It challenged my own sense of comfortableness with my cultural situation.  God, not Caesar, is my patron, my guide, my provider, my Lord.  This prayer stands as a reminder that as I enter the public square, engaging in ministry that I believe will make a difference, I must always be wary of getting too close to power.

Come Sunday, I will conclude the series with a sermon lifting up the doxological response to the prayer Jesus taught the disciples.  The doxology isn't present in the earliest texts, but its addition is appropriate.  It appears that this doxology, which seems to be drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:10-13, was typical of synagogue worship. Being that this is Easter, it is appropriate that we give thanks to the one who reigns over all and who offers us a different way of living in the world.  

Yes, "for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen."

Abuse in the News -- Sightings

It seems as if we read stories about priestly abuse in the Catholic Church -- but little of this is coming from Protestant sources.  As Martin Marty notes, this is a great change from a half century back.  Wondering why he and others like him haven't focused on this issue, Marty offers some thoughts of his own.  I invite you to read and consider:


Sightings 3/29/10

Abuse in the News
-- Martin E. Marty

Sightings weekly scans newspapers, magazines, press releases, newsletters, blogs, books, and more, and then references its stories. This week there are no citations, because the religion-in-public-life story of the week, coded as “Clerical Abuse” is “all over the place.” It has been a major story for years, but Sightings, to my knowledge, devoted only one column to it in recent years (January 12, 2009) and included a couple of incidental references elsewhere. Why so little coverage here and in general, from those who are not anti-religious? The Christopher Hitchens-types are having a field day, or field decade, and there is Catholic coverage, of course, but where are editorials from members of other religious groups, especially Protestants?

Pre-Vatican II, as those of us who remember the journalistic climate back then will recall, Protestants would have headlined and harped on the issue, and heaped on Catholics of low and high degree – the Pope, and what were then called his “minions” most of all. Not now. Sure, with internet word-searches you can find some Protestant-based negative comments, and there are no doubt some savage responses to be found on various blogs, as there are on most blogs. But there are now more anti-anti-Catholic comments than there are anti-Catholic statements (though some Catholic go scouting for the latter, and magnify them). Think hard: Have you seen anti-Catholic blasts from any Protestant denominations, papers, commissions and spokespersons? Or is this not what they are doing? Why not? What has changed? I will offer five suggestions or conclusions based on wide reading.

1) Critical Catholics are taking care of the subject, from SNAP fronts – quite understandably – to grieving leaders, to many of the faithful. They don’t need help from Protestants, whose critiques would carry less weight on an “in-house” issue.
2) Protestants basically use the occasion and the coverage to examine their own houses. Statistics are hard to come by, but insurance companies who deal in the abuse field find enough betrayals and scandals in the Protestant houses – if not always on this specific subject, then on marital infidelities, adulteries, and other breakings of trust.

3) “The old boys’ club” – and we are talking chiefly about boys – is sometimes credited or discredited for the silence. That is, here are professionals guarding their professions, wearers of clerical collars protecting their counterparts and the good name of the caste.

4) Empathy: These profoundly disturbing revelations of abuse and, more often last week, cover-ups or blindness or bureaucratic mess-ups, do hurt; they profoundly hurt good people in the priesthood and the people they serve. Thoughtful humans, who rightfully rage when victims suffer or cover-ups occur, also share the pain of the innocent or stunned, and don’t demonstrate a need to display Schadenfreude, or an enjoyment in the misfortunes of others – not even, as in this case, those once seen as rivals.

5) Ecumenism: It really has taken hold, not in order to blunt moral concerns but to impel and enable people across the boundaries of separate communions to be part of “the other.” Years ago I used to tout a signal of when ecumenism has taken hold: It was evident when members of one communion came to rejoice in the good fortunes of another, or mourn when there is mourning in another, formerly a rival.

These five hunches or clues to understanding are not to be read as excuses or evasions. Justice must be done. But how and by whom the story gets told also matters.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at


In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Laura Lindenberger Wellen considers how illustrations in various editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) have contributed to a sense of that novel's place as what one scholar calls "the Summa Theologica of nineteenth-century America's religion of domesticity." Specifically she focuses on Miguel Covarrubias, who immigrated from Mexico during the 1920s and was active during the rich artistic and political era known as the Harlem Renaissance. Wellen argues that Covarrubias's visual representations in Uncle Tom's Cabin, which rely on a sensibility at play in Harlem of the 1930s, in effect "reanimate the religious and political tensions which made Stowe's text such a popular and controversial text in the 1850s." With invited responses forthcoming from John Howell (University of Chicago Divinity School), Amy Mooney (Columbia College Chicago), and Jo-Ann Morgan (Western Illinois University).


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Faith in the Public Square -- Four Manifestations

People of faith have long wrestled with the place of faith in the public square.  At times religious groups have sought to dominate or control the public square.  At other times, they have allowed the state/nation to dominate and control the faith community.  Others have sought to distance themselves from the public square -- with the Amish being the most distinct example of this.  There was a time, a half century ago or more that mainline Protestantism played a significant role in the public square while evangelicals largely stepped away.  In the past three decades the roles have reversed.

The question that is being raised at this time in a number of sectors has to do with whether faith should engage the public square and if so, how should this engagement occur.  I have found Mark Toulouse's book God in Public:  Four Ways American Christian and Public Life Relate (WJK Press, 2006), to be very helpful in this matter.  Mark has a good sense of the relationship between religion and the public square (that was the focus of his own doctoral studies).   

In this book, Mark focuses on the past fifty years, a period in which the nation has moved from homogeneity (at least on a regional level) to much great diversity.  We are now seeing how this plays out, as folks battle it out as to who will control America's identity.  Focusing on those who would want to see faith engage with the public square, Mark lays out four options -- not all of which views in a positive vein:   Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, the Public Christian, and the Public Church.  Let me lay out these four styles of engagement and invite your thoughts.

  • Iconic Faith
Iconic Faith is an expression of civil religion in which either religious symbols become nationalized or national symbols take on a sacred hue.  Thus, a religious symbols, such as the Bible, takes on a nationalistic identity.  This can be seen in the way in which the Bible is used in ceremonies such as the swearing in of a President or other official -- or as the "guarantor of truth" when taking oaths in court.  On the other side of things, icons such as flags take on venerated status.  Thus to burn a flag is to desecrate it.   In this kind of engagement the church is rather passive.  It simply allows its symbols to be used for state purposes.  Of course, sometimes this becomes tricky, such as when a Muslim takes the oath on the Koran -- in contravention to tradition that privileges Christian icons.

  • Priestly Faith
The idea of a priestly faith is expressed most clearly in the ideology of America as a Christian nation.  In this way of seeing things, America is the vehicle for God's work in the World.  We are, as a nation, a chosen people, a special people, with a special calling.  The church, therefore, is called upon to be the nation's priests.  They give moral support to the state or the nation.  America's interests and causes take on the aura of divine missions.  It is expressed in ideology such as American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny.  Of course, if one is not part of the majority religion, then one is looked at with a certain degree of suspicion.  People of other faiths will be tolerated, but they will not be allowed to contribute to the nation's identity.   

  • Public Christian (Public Person of Faith)

A third style of engagement is that of the Public Christian.  It is a sentiment that has a long pedigree. It's rooted Augustine’s “two cities” and Luther’s “two kingdoms.” In this style, the church remains an entity separate from the public sphere.  One realm is spiritual and the other is earthly.  Christians are encouraged to engage the public square and bring their faith perspectives into the conversation, but the church should remain separate from public debates.  It is a spiritual entity not an earthly one.  The church may lift up issues and cultivate a sense of social justice in the individual, but the church itself will not engage in public action. 
  • Public Church
In this style, the church itself steps into the arena.  It not only nurtures and cultivates people of faith who engage the public square, but it takes up the issues of the day.  It becomes an advocate for social justice.   The Public Church model finds its roots in Calvin’s belief that all human life stands under the Kingdom of God and Ritschl’s “Ethical Imperative.” It undergirded the Social Gospel Movement (Walter Rauschenbusch) and Civil Rights Movements (Martin Luther King, Jr.).  The danger is knowing where to draw the line between the church's activism and the possibility of becoming a tool of party or nation.  That is, there is the possibility that the church can fall into the trap sprung by advocates of “Priestly Faith.”   The way in which one avoids this possibility involves great humility and great discernment.  It requires that we neither absolutize our faith or our nation.  

With Mark I'm drawn to the Public Church ideal.  But I also know its difficult to create, especially since most churches (at least Mainline churches) are not of one mind politically.  There are many dangers to be avoided, and for this conversation to be fruitful then neither church nor party should ever feel beholden to the other.  As Arthur and I put it the articles that we've written for Congregations and for CCAR Journal (forthcoming), "Clergy must not take on the role of kingmaker or inappropriately use their influence to dictate policy."

I believe that the gospel includes a call to engage social justice within it.  I believe that our missional activity should lead to transformation not only of individual lives, but of society itself.  But how does this take place?  How do we engage society without becoming tools of either state or party?  These are the questions of the day!

Deliverance from Evil: Lord's Prayer Sermon Series #5

Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 4:1-15

We began this morning’s service with a procession of palms, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” thereby celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  According to the gospels, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey as a large crowd hailed him as their king.  The authorities, as they watched this scene unfold, would have seen this as a rejection of Caesar’s rule.  Many others in the crowd might have wondered whether they were witnessing the inauguration of God’s reign in the world.  Yes, it would seem as if Jesus had the city in the palm of his hand.  It must have been tempting to hear the cries of the crowd.  If he chose this moment to launch a revolution, surely the people would have come out in force to overturn the system.  Yes, it must have been tempting, but Jesus understood that God’s kingdom would come into the world in a very different way.  

    The journey that led to this apparent day of triumph begins in the desert after Jesus’ baptism by John.  It’s a story of temptation that gives context to both Palm Sunday and the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples.

1.  The Story of Temptation   

    This morning we come to the final petition in Jesus’ prayer.  In it he speaks of  temptation and deliverance from evil.  It is a petition that finds its roots in Jesus’ own experience of temptation in the desert.  According to the gospels, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert after his baptism, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights.  

By the end of this sojourn in the desert, he’s hungry and thirsty.  He’s weak and vulnerable.  It’s at this moment that the devil shows up, and presents Jesus with three tests.  On the surface, these tests don’t seem all that evil, and yet they’re designed to appeal to human weakness and desire. 

    Consider the first temptation – turning stones into bread.  If you’re hungry and it’s in your power to provide yourself with relief, then why not do it?  The second temptation is an offer of power, and we all know that power is important, if we’re to get things done.  All that the devil asks in return is a bit of reverence and allegiance.  Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and reminds him that people like spectacles.  So, why not jump and let the angels rescue him.  That will get a crowd and a following.  In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation, rooting his answers in scripture.    

    That experience in the desert prepared Jesus for Palm Sunday.  The people offered him a crown, but he resisted their offer to lead their revolt against Rome.  Instead of picking up arms, he resisted both empire and temple through his preaching – though he understood full well that preaching God’s kingdom as a new way of living in the presence of God would lead to his death.  He understood that God’s reign is a parallel culture that comes into existence not with power and might, but by way of the cross.
2.  Some Basic Assumptions about Temptation 

   As we consider this petition, asking that God would refrain from leading us into temptation, it’s important that we consider a couple of basic assumptions.  First, we should note that according to the scriptures, God can neither be tempted nor can God tempt anyone else (James 1:12-16).  This is true because God is good, and therefore God cannot and will not do that which is evil.  This means that if anyone suggests that we do that which is evil in the name of God, they have either misheard or misrepresented the God of Jesus Christ.  Second, while Jesus has been tested as we have, he remains without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). This says two things: First of all, since Jesus has been tested as we have, then it seems clear that God isn’t in the business of pulling us out of any and every tempting situation.  Still, while we have personal responsibility in this matter, we also have an example – one who shows us a way of living in the midst of enticement and even evil.  In Jesus, we encounter the parallel culture that is God’s kingdom,  a different way of living that stands apart from all evil.

3.  Facing Temptation   

    Having laid out a couple of basic assumptions about temptation, it’s important to put this request that God not lead us into temptation in its proper context.  Most scholars think that Jesus is speaking here in apocalyptic terms.  That is, he’s encouraging us to pray that God would keep us from enduring that final day of testing when good and evil collide.   Help us, we pray, to avoid such a day.  But, as we pray this prayer in our own daily context, what are we asking? 

    It is good to remember what James had to say on the matter of testing.  He said that faith is strengthened when it’s tested – even if God is not the tester.   Athletes understand what it means to be tested.  So do musicians and even writers.   You have to go through difficulties and challenges if you’re going to improve. Yes, as James puts it: “Know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).  Knowing that God, who is good, won’t tempt us to do evil, then our prayer becomes a statement of trust in God’s leadership, especially when we read this petition in light of Jesus’ words about worry.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry like the Gentiles do, and say:  “‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” Instead, seek above all else, God’s kingdom.

    In mentioning food, drink, and clothing, Jesus speaks to some of our biggest concerns in life.  These also speak to some of the temptations that we face  – especially temptations rooted in consumerism and narcissism.  Every day, we’re bombarded with enticements to buy this or that item that promises to make our lives easier and better.  Whether we’re watching TV, reading the papers and magazines, listening to the radio or checking the Internet, or even as we walk the aisles of Costco or Walmart, we hear voices calling out to us:  Eat this, wear this, drink this, do this, and you’ll be happy.  And if we don’t really have a need, advertisers know how to create one within us.   When consumerism is paired with narcissism, then the message is:  Buy this, because you deserve it!  Yes, you’re number one, and it’s important take care of number one  – even if that means stepping on your neighbor!  With this as our context, then our prayer is, in reality, a prayer of discernment so that we might walk with God in the midst of temptation and testing.   

4.  Deliverance from Evil

    The second half of the petition is absent from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, but it may be the key to understanding it.  Although we begin by asking God to carry us through the time of testing, we conclude by asking God to deliver us from the evil one – that is, the one who encourages us to act contrary to God’s purposes.

    Before we look at Jesus’s definition of evil, it would be helpful to think about the nature of deliverance.  And, lest our imaginations get the better of us, I don’t think Jesus has exorcisms – like the ones portrayed in famous movies – in mind.   Deliverance from evil involves putting our trust in God rather than the evil one.   If we make the assumption that God is good and will not tempt us to do evil, then the way to put aside evil is to discern God’s will and direction, which is what we do when we pray that God’s kingdom would come and that we would do God’s will.   Ultimately, our deliverance is found in two commandments that summarize the law and the prophets – love of God and love of  neighbor.  Everything that is good flows from these two commandments.    

    Although the way of deliverance involves committing our lives and futures into the hands of the good and gracious God revealed to us in Jesus, what is the nature of this evil from which we’re to be delivered?  As we consider this question, it’s instructive that the Greek word  translated here as evil derives from a word that speaks of poverty and deep need.  Therefore, when we ask God to deliver us from the evil with which the evil one tempts us, it appears that Jesus is speaking of actions that undermine efforts to relieve poverty and need.  Or, as Father Michael Crosby writes:
    To pray to be "delivered from evil" involves doing good toward those in need.  In this sense poneros also involves economic and political iniquity, not just individual and interpersonal wrongdoing. (The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, p. 165).

It’s a matter, he suggests, of discerning the difference between good and bad fruit.   As for the fruit of our lives, Jesus says  “that the good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure” (Matthew 12:35). 

    The question before us, then, as we pray this prayer Jesus taught us comes down to this:  Which tree defines your life?   Or, to put it a bit differently, what do we mean when we sing, as Christians, “they will know we are Christians by our love?”     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 28, 2010

New Covenant -- A Lenten Devotional

Jeremiah 31:31-33
31 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
Jeremiah speaks here of a new covenant that God– in the future -- would institute. Unlike the previous covenant, which was written on stone tablets, this covenant would be written on hearts. That is, instead of being an external covenant, this one would be internal. While the covenant made through Moses came with rules and regulations that clearly spelled out God’s directives for the covenant people, there would come a time when such a thing would no longer be necessary.

An internally driven faith, which is what Jeremiah had in mind, requires great maturity. Although we often speak of the Last Supper as the moment at which Jesus instituted a new covenant, we must ask ourselves, have we reached the point of maturity, so that our faith can be truly internally driven? Or, do we still need the guidelines that the law provides? Can we say that the law has been sufficiently written on our hearts?

As we consider these questions, it would be helpful to consider what it means to be in covenant with God. From a biblical perspective, to be in covenant with God means that we commit ourselves, at God’s invitation, to be in relationship with God. Our use of covenant language to describe what happens in a marriage – where the two be come one – is helpful in understanding this new relationship.

To be in covenant with God is to be in union with God – to be one with God. Such union doesn’t happen automatically. It is something that happens over time as we walk with God, work with God, and talk with God. The union begins in baptism, when the covenant relationship is first struck. It is nourished as we gather at the Table with sisters and brothers. It is extended as we work together doing the work of God in the world, bearing witness to Jesus’ word of reconciliation.

Reprinted from 2010 Central Woodward Christian Church Lenten Devotional Guide, edited by John McCauslin.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Being a Public Christian in a Public Church

The recent, and still ongoing, debate over health care reform has provoked another serious (and at times not so serious) debate over the role of religion in public life.  Glen Beck has undertaken an offensive against those who believe that social justice is part of our calling.  In doing this, he attacks not only Jim Wallis, but Bishops of Rome for the past century.  There are, and have been, different understandings of the role and purpose of the church and of Christians in government and society.  There has always been a tradition that calls for the church to remain outside the world -- the most distinctive example being the Amish.  There have also been examples, including the Social Gospel movement, that called for the church to be actively engaged in the transformation of society.  Still others, including fellow blogger Allan Bevere, are arguing that the church should be the locus of transformation and that the reach of government should be constrained rather than encouraged. 

Mark Toulouse wrote an excellent book a few years back called God in Public (WJK, 2007).  In it he argued that Christians have engaged society in four different ways -- Iconic Faith, Priestly Faith, Public Christian, and Public Church.  The last of these expressions, the public church, describes a faith community that gets actively involved in the transformation process.   No better example of this would be the churches and synagogues that actively participated in the civil rights movement.

Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer and I wrote an article, published in Congregations, in the Summer of 2008.  We used Mark's taxonomy to argue for a way in which progressive religious folk could engage the political arena -- both as individuals and as communities.  It was entitled "Faith and Politics:  Finding a Way to have a Fruitful Conversation."  An rewritten version of this essay will be published this summer in a Rabbinic journal, carrying the title:  "Same-Gender Marriages from the Intersection of Faith and Politics," (CCAR Journal). 

In the essay we made this observation, that I think might be helpful -- along with a set of guidelines that can be found in the article itself.

There are inherent dangers in mixing religion and politics, and clergy must be careful about how involved they get with partisan efforts. There are legal and tax ramifications that must be kept in mind. There are many who believe that it is not in the church’s best interest for clergy to become heavily involved.7 If clergy and people of faith enter into the political realm, certain rules need to be considered. Besides the legal issues, there are ethical ones. As clergy with sympathies for the Democratic Party enter into conversation with the party of their choice, it would be important that neither party nor person of faith feel beholden to the other. Clergy must not take on the role of “kingmaker” or dictate policy. They can, however, offer words of advice and guidance from the perspective of faith. There can be no quid pro quo relationships. Indeed, the question that stands before both the political and religious communities as they enter into conversation is whether one or two issues trump all others.
I will close by saying that at this point I'm operating more out of the Public Christian mode than the Public Church mode -- though as a church we are taking up missional causes that while not politically aligned may have political implications.  With this as an introductory statement, I invite my readers to consider the relationship of faith and politics.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The data of evolution and the Christian faith

I am on record as affirming the validity of the scientific concept of evolution. Scientists might disagree on the details, but with very few exceptions that agree that evolution is the scientific explanation for how things came to be. 

From a theological perspective, we must wrestle with this data and discern what it means for us as believers.  What is helpful, in my mind, is to hear from those whose credentials as conservative theologians/biblical scholars are really beyond question affirm that if the data of evolution is overwhelming, then we must accept it or face spiritual and intellectual consequences.

Thus, I'm very pleased to hear Bruce Waltke, a conservative Old Testament scholar teaching at the very conservative Reformed Theological Seminary, make the point -- if the data is overwhelming and we reject it then we become a cult.  He also suggests that if we choose not to use our minds, which God has given us, then we face spiritual death.  With that, I invite you to watch this brief video conversation.  Do you hear in what he says, what I think I hear in his words? 

H/T to Scot McKnight.

Tending to the Holy -- Academy of Parish Clergy's Book of the Year

I wanted to announce that the book Tending to the Holy, written by Bruce and Kate Epperly, has been named Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. This book, along with nine others, will be honored at the upcoming Academy of Parish Clergy Annual Meeting in Racine, WI. I happen to be the editor of the Academy's journal, Sharing the Practice.  Below is my review published here at the blog -- a briefer version was published in the journal.

TENDING TO THE HOLY: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. By Bruce G. Epperly and Katherine Gould Epperly. Foreword by Kent Ira Goff. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2009. xii + 196 pp.

Busy pastors often take little time to attend to their physical, emotional, or spiritual life. They also often compartmentalize parts of their ministry – assuming that some parts are spiritual (preaching and praying) and others not so spiritual (administration). Bruce and Kate Epperly pick up on Brother Lawrence’s imagery of “practicing the presence of God” and share their understanding of how all aspects of ministry are spiritual and need to be undertaken in prayer – whether that prayer is a breath prayer or time spent in contemplation and meditation. For those of us, who are not by nature contemplative, who find it difficult not just to take time but to feel comfortable in prayer, this book is a godsend.

The Epperlys co-pastor a Disciples/UCC federated church in Pennsylvania, while Bruce serves as Director of Continuing Education and Professor of Practical Theology at Lancaster Theological Seminary. This book is very personal, drawing on their experiences of ministry and spirituality. They write with passion about ways in which renewed and energized pastors can help energize mainline churches – not by turning to conservative theology, but by fully engaging a progressive understanding of Christianity. But, this is not rationalistic approach – they understand the need for the mystical, for letting the Spirit move in the life of the pastor and the church. This is an expression of the idea of Christian Practices that Diana Butler Bass, among others, have been lifting up these past several years, calling on us to a practice of awareness of God’s presence in every moment of our lives.

What is important to note here is that the Epperlys are strongly grounded in theology. They write:

While we recognize a good deal of truth in the postmodern critique of any attempt to frame global and all-inclusive theological worldviews, we nevertheless affirm the value of articulating a coherent, yet tentative and flexible, theological vision of God’s activity in the world as a means of orienting our lives and daily spiritual practices. (P. 11).

They acknowledge up front that they have been influenced by process theology, along with Jungian psychology and system theory, among others. These foundations are evident throughout, but they point us not to the systems and perspectives, but to practices that are deeply grounded and empower ministry. Perhaps most importantly, and this view they take from process theology, is the affirmation that God is always present. This a view that is continually reinforced. With that in mind, then we can integrate all aspects of life, and understand everything we do in ministry is rooted in God’s active presence in the world. They speak often, as well, of the principle of abundance – not in a prosperity gospel way – that allows us to see the world in a new light, one that is not rooted in scarcity and fear.

The book takes up all facets of ministry, beginning with preaching, teaching and worship – and they define these aspects of ministry in terms of spiritual formation. They encourage taking time for study and prayer, so that in our teaching and preaching and worship leadership, we have a vision of God’s presence and a recognition that we are vessels through which God is speaking. One way of moving in this direction is to reclaim the use of study for the pastor’s office. They write that the use of office reflects a change from the ministerial vocation as that of “rabbi, teacher, and spirit person,” and has moved it into more corporate senses as “administrator, program manager, professional counselor, and functional CEO.” It’s not these functions aren’t part of ministry, but rather the problem of these images defining what a pastor is doing (pp. 36-37).

Moving from what would seem to be the most visible aspects of ministry, they move onto ministries of spiritual guidance, pastoral care, leadership and administration, and finally prophetic hospitality. In each area of ministry, they urge pastors to engage themselves spiritually and prayerfully, even when engaging in work that doesn’t seem all that spiritual. For clergy who resist the administrative tasks, they Epperlys remind us that we can’t get away from them, they’re part of what we do, but we can reenvision these tasks spiritually. The question they ask of us is this:

Will your administrative leadership deepen the spirituality of your congregation and your own spirituality, or will it be a source of conflict, fatigue, and frustration both for yourself and for the congregation? We believe that the form and style of your leadership and administration as a pastor cannot be separated from your theological beliefs and spiritual practices. (p. 127).

The kind of leadership they envision is one that is “creative, appreciative, affirmative, and imaginative.” It is a form of ministry that is rooted in a spiritual practice, which they borrow from Gerald May, of “pausing, opening, noticing, stretching and yielding, followed by responding to God’s presence.” This form of prayerfulness or mindfulness is described and applied throughout the book – reminding us how we might recognize God’s presence and engage that presence in all aspects of ministry.

The penultimate chapter is called “prophetic hospitality,” and this chapter needs to be internalized by mainline progressive pastors – many of whom pastor churches that are at a different place than they are when it comes to political, theological, social, and cultural issues. Clergy tend to either hide their views or lashing out angrily. The Epperlys offer another way, one that allows both for expressing prophetic understandings while respecting and loving those with whom we differ. The key is staying in relationship with those who differ, while continuing to hold true to one’s own beliefs.

Prophetic hospitality is grounded in a visionary reconciliation in which pastors see and appreciate Christ’s presence in all their congregants as the foundation of common ground amid great diversity. (p. 170)

Indeed, one cannot preach God’s love while disrespecting one’s opponents – a word that is difficult for us, as human beings, to get a hold of and internalize, and yet it’s an important one. Once again, however, in order to accomplish this, one must engage the other prayerfully. This conversation helpfully deals with the reality that is most troubling for us as pastors – dealing with our own anger. They offer a possible way for this anger to be transformed into love. In all of this, the point is that we seek a balance where we can live out our dual callings to be prophets and shepherds, challengers and comforters.

This is not only an excellent book, I would suggest that it is essential reading for clergy, especially those who are progressive in their theology. It is thoroughly grounded in theology, because the authors insist that what we believe matters -- especially regarding the presence of God in every aspect of life. They also take into account other sources of revelation – such as tradition and psychology It is challenging and comforting. The point is, our ability to live out our calling without becoming burned out and beaten up, requires that we stay grounded in our relationship with God, and that means practicing the presence of God in all places and at all times. Such a word breathes grace into our ministries.

Health Care -- Semper Reformanda

One of the principles of the Reformation is that the Church must always be in the process of reforming itself.  We can't let ourselves think that we've brought the church back to perfection.  I'm part of a movement that has referred to itself as the Restoration Movement, and at times some of our folks have looked to the 1st Century church as the perfect golden age to which we need to return.

Well, now that the House has re-passed the fixes sent to the Senate to redeem the Senate bill, and which required a bit of amending, the final bills are now being sent to the President.  We have a new health care plan that will provide insurance coverage (eventually) for millions of Americans.  It will end unfair practices such as cutting people off from their plans if they use them or refuse folks if they have pre-existing conditions.  This latter reform will be of great help, because it will prevent insurance companies from cherry-picking healthy clients, and leaving those with pre-existing conditions few options. 

But, if we think we've reached health care nirvana, we're kidding ourselves.  This lays an important foundation, without which none of the other reforms can take place.  We need to work on developing better and more cost effective delivery systems.  We need to recognize that too many dollars go to specialized equipment and costly procedures, and not enough go to providing for family practice.  We've become a society overly dependent on costly tests, and not enough on good old fashioned physical examination. In addition, billions are spent each year on paper work.  I go to the doctor, the doctor bills the insurance company, the insurance company decides whether to pay, sends me a letter and the doctor a letter, and the doctor sends me a bill -- it's very inefficient.  Then there is the question of malpratice insurance and tort reform, which need addressed.  

Yes, this is only the beginning.  The health care system has been reformed, and it must continue being reformed. 

Having begun this essay with a bit of religion, I'll end  with some.  One of the questions that has arisen in this debate is the role of faith/religion in the conversation.  There are some, including some fellow bloggers with whom I'm in regular conversation, who are calling for a retreat from political advocacy.  I'm assuming that one is allowed to enter the political realm as an individual, but the focus should be on the church's work of social care.

The position that I take has been described by Mark Toulouse in his book God in Public as the Public Church position.  I have argued for this position in an article written with Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer for Congregations (Summer 2008), and another that is based upon that article for the Rabbinic journal  CCAR Journal:  The Reform Jewish Journal , which comes out this summer.  In this view, the religious community enters into the public square as advocates -- recognizing the dangers inherent in this act.  It is out of concern for the common good that we seek to act, knowing that our actions are not perfect.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Salome -- A Theolog Review

SalomeMy review of Patti Rutka's midrashic novel, Salome, (Eugene:  Resource Publications, 2010), a book that explores the person behind an infamous dance, is now up at Theolog, the Christian Century blog.  While the book is relatively brief, just 107 pages, it is a most helpful exploration of this biblical story of a dance that cost a prophet his head. 

 The review begins:
While the name “Salome” conjures images of eroticism and violence, the Bible doesn’t actually name the dancer who seduces Herod Antipas. According to the two gospel accounts, Herodias seeks revenge on John the Baptist for daring to condemn her illicit marriage to Herod. She manipulates her husband into killing John by having her beautiful daughter dance before him. Drunk with wine and lust, Herod promises the daughter anything she wants—and she demands the prophet’s head. The reluctant tetrarch complies, lest he lose face with his birthday party guests.  (To continue reading, click here)

Remembering the Christians of Iraq

When we think of Iraq we often think in monolithic terms -- it is a Muslim country.  We know that there are Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds, along with Shiva Arabs living in Iraq, but we often forget that there is a small but significant Christian community in Iraq.  This community has existed from the earliest days of Christianity.   Philip Jenkins has told their story in in his book, the Lost History of Christianity, the review of which can be found here.  

It is always difficult to live as a religious minority, and this becomes increasingly difficult in times of transition and change.  One of the unintended consequences of the fall of Saddam Hussein is that religiously oriented parties came to the fore and sectarian violence increased -- to the point of Sunni-Shia civil war.  Caught in the middle of this sectarian violence was the small Christian community, a community that has gotten increasingly smaller due to the persecution and flight from Iraq.  Many Iraqi Christians have found refuge in Syria and in the United States, especially Metro-Detroit. 

I have received two visits from a local leader in the Assyrian/Chaldean community.  This man has come asking for support of the Assyrian/Chaldean community in Iraq.  He has shared with me the plight of his people and shared with me the efforts being made to remind Congress of this situation.  But not only must Congress be reminded -- so must we -- for if we forget this people, then they can remain a targeted people.  Indeed, one of the reasons they have been targeted is that they have been identified with the United States (remember that many of those who have been most vocal in support of the Iraq war also claim that we are a Christian nation).  

It is important that we not forget the Christians in Iraq.  It is important that we make sure the people of Iraq not scapegoat this community because of U.S. actions in Iraq.  It is important that we hold the government of Iraq accountable for respecting the rights of this minority community.  It is important that we remember them in our prayers. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Deliverance from Evil and Social Justice

I'm preparing to preach on the final petition of the Lord's Prayer.  Yes, I must find a way to connect Palm Sunday with the Lord's Prayer!  This petition reads "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."  This phrase is loaded with possibilities, some of which I'll try to unpack in the sermon.  But as I'm reading in preparation for the sermon from Michael Crosby's The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, I came across this poignant paragraph that seeks to unpack the word evil.  

In light of all the conversations about social justice, the church, health care reform, immigration reform, etc., the question of one's role in the conversation is always present.  Crosby has hit on something that I think has merit and is worth pondering.

At the end of the paragraph prior to the one I'm going to quote, Crosby notes that in Matthew's understanding, the evil from which we're asking to be delivered "originates not from the 'devil [who] made me do it' but from that evil that keeps us from doing good (6:22-23).   

Germane to our identification of prayer with the effort to do good and be just, when we probe Matthew's meaning of "evil" (poneros), it helps to remember that poneros originally came from penomai, the root word for poverty, the poor, and the needy.  Thus, to pray to be "delivered from evil" involves doing good toward those in need.  In this sense poneros also involves economic and political iniquaty, not just individual and interpersonal wrongdoing.  However, by the time Matthew used poneros,  it had come to be identified more with those dynamics that undermine just actions meant to alleviate people's situations of need and poverty.  This is expressed in the notion of the contrast between "good" (kalos) fruit and "bad" (poneros) fruit (7:18).  [Crosby, p. 165]
Thus, as we pray this prayer, a prayer many of us recite each Sunday, if not more often -- the Didache suggests we pray it daily (3 times) -- are we ready to hear its implications in our lives?  And if so, what does it require of us?  The answers might be many.  Some might say, that it requires us to push the government to enact just laws.  Others will say that the government is the problem or part of the problem and that we must work outside those boundaries.  Others might say that this isn't an either/or proposition.  In light of Crosby's point, the question is -- if we're asking that God deliver us from evil, and if evil is defined as efforts to undermine actions designed to alleviate the poverty and needs of others, then what does this entail?  

The Dangers of Triumphalism -- A Reprint

With Palm Sunday on the horizon, a Sunday in the liturgical calendar that carries with it a sense of irony, I thought I would repost a column written for Palm Sunday in 2007 for the Lompoc Record.  I think it will help us prepare for the coming Holy Week.


Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record,
April 1, 2007

Palm Sunday, in the Christian tradition, celebrates Jesus' “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. The Gospels picture a crowd hailing Jesus as Israel's deliverer from Roman occupation, but as the story continues, we discover that the crowd has misinterpreted the signs. Jesus, it seems, has a different mission, one that calls into question the whole premise of a “triumphal entry.”

Instead, Jesus dies on an imperial Roman cross. Christians, including me, are tempted to skip over the dark clouds of Good Friday to the triumph of Easter, for we would prefer good news to bad, victory to defeat, winners over losers. Indeed, in some sectors of the Christian community, there is a growing preference for the “muscular Jesus” to the “gentle shepherd Jesus.”
As a nation we like to celebrate the winners, the heroes, the strong and the powerful. We want leaders who will lead us to victory, whether the game is basketball, war, or the economy. And so, we're tempted by “triumphalism,” which, as theologian Douglas John Hall writes, is that tendency afflicting all world views, whether religious or secular, to see themselves “as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting of their adherents unflinching belief and loyalty” (The Cross in our Context, p. 17). You are, as they say, either with us or against us, and any hesitation will be taken as a sign that you're really not with us.

When religious people enter the public arena they often come in under a triumphalist guise, what historian Mark Toulouse calls “priestly faith.” This “priestly faith” is a distorted form of religion that merges the religious with the national agenda to such a degree that they become indistinguishable. Thus, nation becomes confused with church (or synagogue, mosque, temple, etc.). It's the type of faith that celebrates America as a “Christian nation,” and takes public symbols and fills them with religious, indeed, with Christian meanings.
Consider for a moment an issue that has gotten people riled up in recent years: the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. This phrase wasn't in the original pledge, which dates back to the late 19th century. It was added in the mid-1950s during the early days of the Cold War, as a response to a perceived threat from the “Godless Communists” of the Soviet Union (my, doesn't that sound dated?). Congress also changed the national motto from “E Pluribus Unum” (from the many, one) to “In God We Trust.” In so doing, the American government declared that we are the godly ones.
Advocates and practitioners of this “priestly faith” first infuse public symbols with religious meaning and then declare that these meanings “represent the only true way of being both Christian and American” (Toulouse, God in Public, p. 82). Popular during the ‘‘dark days” of the 1950s, when school children practiced “ducking and covering,” this “priestly faith” has made a rebound in recent years. Now, however, the “enemy” isn't the “Godless Communist,” but is instead the “Islamofascist Terrorists.” With this change of enemies, the generic Judeo-Christian God of the 1950s requires further definition. Now the battle isn't between the godless and the godly, but between adherents of two different Gods - Christian versus Muslim.

Too often, religious faith is merged into a nationalism that distorts our faith traditions, so that they become tools of national interests. If we're to find any semblance of peace in an ethnically and religiously diverse nation and world, then we must find a different way of living faithfully in the public square. Triumphalism inhibits our ability to listen to the voice of the other, because to such a mind, the other has no value to us. If one stands outside the circle, they must be assimilated, shunned, or if necessary destroyed.

Palm Sunday, when seen from the vantage point of Good Friday, is ultimately a dead end. And, if we believe we must win at all costs - whether the conflict involves religions, rival gangs, or nation states - we will destroy ourselves. The “triumphalist” way has been judged by God and has been found wanting. This means that we must find a different way, one that is humble and ready to listen to the other.

April 1, 2007