Sunday, February 28, 2010

Living in the Kingdom: Sermon on the Lord's Prayer #2

Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 13:18-21

We live in a modern democracy that enshrines the words:
    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Didn’t the nation’s founders throw off a king in order to gain this independence?   And yet, week after week, we pray that God’s kingdom would be revealed and that God’s will would be done, both in heaven and on earth.  How do we reconcile our prayers with our politics?

    I suppose we reconcile these two very different perspectives, by spiritualizing the kingdom of God.  We live in a democracy here on earth – where we get to run our own lives – and when we get to heaven, well, then God gets to be in charge!  

    Unfortunately, Jesus won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Remember, in the prayer, as Matthew presents it, we commit ourselves to obeying God, both on earth and in heaven.  Jesus also says that the kingdom is already here in our midst.   And, when people asked – where is the kingdom?  Jesus responded:

    “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21 NRSV).

Now, I should point out that many translations replace the word “among” with “within.”  If we go with “within,” then it’s easier to spiritualize the message of the kingdom.  The kingdom of God simply becomes a matter of our personal relationship with God, and therefore doesn’t have any social or political ramifications.  But, if the kingdom of God is all around us, even if it’s invisible to the naked eye, then the message is quite different.
   
1.  The Kingdom – the Heart of the Prayer   
    So what do we mean, when we pray for God’s kingdom to be revealed?  As we consider this question, it’s important to remember that Jesus focused his ministry on proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Everything he did, whether he was teaching or healing, revealed to the world the nature of God’s reign.  Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that this petition stands at the very heart of this prayer.  Jesus believed and taught that God’s kingdom required that God’s will be done on earth even as it is in heaven, just as the second clause of the petition reminds us.  Everything that we prayed for in this prayer is rooted in the premise that the kingdom of the Holy God is present in our midst.   This includes God’s daily provisions, the request for forgiveness, and the request that God would protect us against the inroads of evil.  All of this is rooted in the assumption that God’s kingdom is truly present in the here and now.    

    Now, when we pray this prayer, we need to be aware that there are other kingdoms that have a claim on our allegiance, just as they did when Jesus taught this prayer to a people living under Roman occupation.  As I pointed out in the last sermon, the Roman emperor considered himself the Great Father, and the people of the Empire were his children.  He promised to provide them with bread and protection, in exchange for their absolute obedience and worship.  So, when Jesus invites us to pray this prayer, we need to remember that God’s kingdom stands in contrast to Caesar’s – whether Caesar is an emperor or a president doesn’t matter.

    Jesus often used parables to describe the nature of God’s kingdom.  Therefore, as we consider what it means to pray this prayer, I’d like us to consider two very brief but powerful parables.  One talks about mustard seeds and the other speaks of yeast.

2.  Small Is Beautiful

    According to the parable of the mustard seed, this seed is among the smallest of all seeds.  It’s so small that it’s difficult to see, and yet the promise of the mature plant is present in the seed.   I expect that when Jesus says that the kingdom is in your midst, his audience was likely looking around, wondering what they should be looking for.  After all, they couldn’t see a throne or an army.  All they could see was a rag tag band of Galileans following a rather young religious teacher. 

    But this is good news, because it reminds us that small is beautiful, and that big things can have small beginnings.  As one commentator suggested, the people expected the kingdom to be like a mighty cedar, like the one promised in Ezekiel, but as Luke reminds us, Jesus’ ministry was similar to that of the mustard seed.  It’s full of promise, but we can’t see the fullness of its presence just yet.  But, when it does arrive in its fulness – it’ll be much like that cedar.  It will grow large enough to host the birds of the air in its branches, just as the prophet suggested (Ezk. 17:22-23).  And that promise of nesting space has been interpreted to mean inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God.     

    When we pray that God’s kingdom would be made known in our midst, we need to change our sense of what this means.  It’s not a matter of spectacles or demonstrations of power.  Instead, it’s about being present in such a way that God’s purpose might be fulfilled on earth. 
    This is good news, because while we might be small and even insignificant by the world’s standards, we have the possibility of making a difference in the community – that is, we can be signs of God’s reign.  Yes, there was a time when we were a large and influential church, but now, as we seek to be a missional presence in our community, our influence will not be determined by our size or our wealth.  Instead, it will be determined by our willingness to allow God to use us for the transformation of the world.

3.  A Little is a Lot  
    
    The second parable speaks of yeast, though it might be better to speak of leaven.  The image here is that of a small ball  of fermented dough, which when added to fresh dough or flour starts the leavening process.  In this case, a woman hides, a small amount of leaven in three measures of flour.  That may not sound like a lot at first, but consider that these three measures equal 50 pounds.  That’s enough dough to  feed 150 people, which makes it a lot of bread!

    As we think about what this parable means for us, it might be helpful to remember that leaven and yeast were often used as metaphors for uncleanness and corrupting influences.  Paul speaks of a little leaven, corrupting a whole batch of dough (Gal. 5:9).  According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus warns the disciples about  the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21).  In this case, however, the leaven has a positive value.  It works in much the same way, but with a different outcome.  Instead of being a source of evil, it becomes a source of good. 

    The early Christian community might have been small in number, and their influence on society may have been initially quite small, but over time, that little bit of leaven, hidden in the flour, produced a lot of loaves of bread.  The kingdom of God may seem hidden, and yet it can change the dynamics of the world’s existence. 

    If we’re willing to be signs of God’s reign, in our words and in our deeds, in the way we interact with others, and live our lives in the world, then we can be change agents in society.  We can change the tone of the conversation and the focus of our culture’s attention.  That is, after all, what yeast does, it changes things.  Paul writes to the Corinthian church and tells them that God has reconciled them in Christ, making them new creations, and therefore God was entrusting to them the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). 

    We live in a time of fear, mistrust, anxiety, and even great anger.  The air is heavy with its presence.  As Walter Brueggemann speaks of journeying to the common good, he points us back to the Exodus story.  In that story we see a people move out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of Sinai.  He makes a point that I think speaks to our situation.
    Those who are living in anxiety and fear, most especially fear of scarcity, have not time or energy for the common good.  (Walter Brueggemann, The Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, p. 7). 

The message of the kingdom, is this: we no longer need to live in anxiety.  We needn’t fear scarcity, for we live in the midst of God’s abundance.  This is because  the leaven is hidden in the dough.  Indeed, as the next petition reminds us – God is the great provider.  But, too often we miss the signs of God’s kingdom, because we’re too focused on living In Pharaoh’s kingdom or Caesar’s kingdom.  And in that kingdom, there’s never enough.  That’s because no one shares, and no one looks out for the other.  It’s everyone for themselves.  
    In God’s kingdom, things are different.  We can be agents of change, agents of transformation, agents of reconciliation.  Of course, it starts here in this community that we call church.  If we’re not reconciled – if love doesn’t permeate this community or  we spend our time grumbling about little things – then we’ll find it difficult to answer the call to bear witness to God’s presence in the world. 
  As we pray this prayer, that God’s kingdom would be revealed in our midst, let’s remember that this promised reign of God starts small – in a mustard seed and in a ball of fermented dough.  May we hear and respond to God’s will, both here on earth and also in heaven.  Then we’ll be ready to reach out into our neighborhoods and communities, touching lives, so that they too might be transformed and healed.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2010
                                               

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Prayers for Chile (and Pacific Neighborhood)

In the wake of the devastating earthquake that has wreaked havoc on Haiti, news has come of  one of history's largest earthquakes, one measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale, has hit off the coast of Chile, about 200 miles southwest of the capital of Santiago, and 70 miles north of the second largest city, Concepcion, which is in the zone that has experienced the highest amounts of shaking due to the quake. (see the map from the New York Times to the left).

   The damage is great, as one might expect, but added to the earthquake damage in Chile, there is the possibility of a dangerous tsunami hitting through out the Pacific Region, including Hawaii. Despite the magnitude of the quake, the effects on Chile likely will be less than in Haiti, for the people of Chile are used to large quakes and have prepared for them -- much as in Southern California.  Still, as I know from living in Southern California, and having experienced much smaller quakes, the devastation will still be great. 

Church World Service offers this update on ways of helping, knowing that at this point it's still too early to know what will be needed. 

CWS emergency staff have been in contact with our colleagues on the ground in Chile, who report their people are safe.  CWS has worked in Chile to provide emergency preparedness training and assistance to the country's sizable population of Colombians, displaced to Chile by conflict.  CWS works with two Chilean agencies, FASIC (Fundacion de Ayuda Social de las Iglesia Cristianas) and IMECH, the Methodist Church of Chile.

As part of the international ACT Alliance network, CWS will work to provide emergency assistance such as food, water and shelter to those affected by this disaster.  CWS staff continue to be in contact with people in Chile and colleagues in other ACT Alliance agencies to ensure a timely and responsible response.  CWS staff are also preparing for a tsunami response in Hawaii should any be needed. Please donate now to help meet emergency needs in Chile and from related tsunamis.
The Disciples of Christ relief arm, Week of Compassion (for whom we are taking our general outreach offering this week), notes that guidance will be provided soon.  Funds can, of course, be given through them.  

In addition, may we keep the people of that region in our prayers.

The Church -- Not a Family?

In the churches I've pastored, all of which have been small or smaller, have liked to think of themselves as family.  Of course, we have always been rather dysfunctional families!   Still, we like the idea of being family, because it speaks of intimacy and support.  But is this a good image for the church?  Does it portend something that undermines the purpose of the Church?

Tony Robinson has written a piece for Duke Divinity School's Call & Response blog that calls into question this idea that the church is family.  Entitled "Quit Thinking of the Church as Family," Robinson notes that there are a number of reasons why this image runs contrary to the purpose of the church to be a community that is transformative of people and the broader community to be more Christlike.  He writes:

Many of the congregations that claim “We’re a family,” lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members. The core purpose of a congregation -- growing people of faith and helping people and communities move from despair to hope -- gives way to lesser and even contrary purposes like keeping people happy. While it may not be a necessary outcome of the use of the family image, many congregations that gravitate towards it seem to make member comfort and satisfaction their de facto purpose.
He goes on to say that if we feel the need to use the idea of family it would be helpful  to remember that Jesus subverted the typical idea of family:
If we must use “family,” we should be aware of the way that Jesus, while using “family,” also subverts conventional understandings of family and challenges their usual boundaries with a thoroughly new vision of “family.”
 I would add that the image of family can be excluding.  Robinson mentions the message sent to the unmarried or those without children that the church is there for "families," and if one doesn't fit that category then one is less than welcome.  I would push this a bit further to note that families focus on blood.  It's not easy to break into a family.  There are certain family traits, secrets, etc. that are not easily shared.  Thus families, by their very nature are focused on maintaining boundaries.

Other images, such as People of God, Body of Christ, even Household of God, may in the end be better terms that will allow us to fulfill our calling to be a transformative agent in the world.    

Friday, February 26, 2010

Thy Kingdom Connected -- Review

THY KINGDOM CONNECTED: What the Church Can Learn from Facebook, the Internet, and Other Networks.  By Dwight J. Friesen.  Foreword by Leonard Sweet.  Afterword by Dan Allender.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009.  189 pp. 

    Writing to a church that prizes individualism and autonomy, Dwight Friesen preaches networking.  In a world that seems increasingly polarized – despite the ever expanding opportunities to communicate – he embraces a message of unity, what Mainline churches call ecumenicity.  The model for achieving this unity is different from the one embraced by the ecumenical movement.  It’s not institutional; it’s a grass roots effort, involving efforts to build links between separated people.   Friesen isn’t focused on getting denominations to agree on a theological construct.  Instead, he envisions people getting caught up God’s vision and begin joining together in giving witness in word and deed to God’s missional presence in the world.   An image that appears in the later stages of the book is that of a social virus spreading through society, permeating it with God’s presence and vision.

    To get a sense of where this conversation seems to be going, it might be helpful to know something of the author of Thy Kingdom Connected.  Dwight Friesen is a youngish Emergent former pastor teaching practical theology at a rather new and upstart seminary in Seattle (Mars Hill Graduate School).   He’s evangelical, but his evangelicalism seems to be open and generous.  Oh, and I might add that he’s wearing an ear ring in the back cover picture.  The author is technologically savvy, understands the new sciences, and is conversant with the latest trends in society.  This background helps illuminate Friesen’s sense of vision.  Unlike some of the Emergent and Missional works I've read, even though he is critical at points of the way things are going with institutions, he’s not overly anti-institutional.  Rather than focus on the problems, he seeks to find clues that would help us move forward -- especially forms of  social media such as Facebook. 

    In Friesen’s vision, the Christian faith is akin to a conversation.  It is relational, even as the triune God is relational.  It is dynamic and creative.  While Friesen is critical of religious institutions, he doesn’t seem interested in tilting at windmills or tossing out what exists.  Instead he wants to offer a new paradigm, one that isn’t atomistic or static – as he correctly notes, is often true of our institutions.  They are stymied by conflicting interests and concerns (consider our governmental systems for a moment). 

    In the new paradigm, the world is envisioned as an integrated whole.  Those involved in leadership in this model are called to facilitate linkages and help create hubs that will connect people together.  Again, as models to emulate, he points us to such  internet staples as Facebook, Linked-In, and Twitter.  Churches are not so much institutions as “Christ Commons” or “Christ-Clusters,” and pastors serve as network ecologists, helping to facilitate linkages to the hubs.

    The book is composed of five clusters, which lead from “Seeing Connectively” to “Connective Practices.”  He begins by inviting us to look at the world through a set of lenses, moves on to describe the kingdom in networking terms, shares how leadership functions in this new reality, and concludes with two sections, one dealing with the church and the other with missional practices.  The goal is to help Christians and churches become connected, understand how they are linked, and understand that the church is called, as the body of Christ, to be part of God’s transformative work.  We are, he says to be “And’ers,” linking others to Jesus and to the kingdom.  He writes:
    Missional linking is marked by a kingdom imagination that, when confronted with “otherness,” is able to see an And’ing in Christ; Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women, Republican and Democrat, modern and postmodern, left and right.  The way of Christ is to become the And.  God’s mission, if you choose to live into it, is to boldly link where no one has linked before; this is the Christ conjunction (p. 135).

Such a view would seem ideologically centrist, or perhaps a sense of pragmatism – trying to bridge the gaps in a very polarized society.   But, his sense here is that the goal of the kingdom is reconciliation, “the linking together those who have been separated” (p. 134).

    In the past, even in the biblical text, the church was envisioned as a lonely light house, shining its light into the darkness.  Such an image is less useful today, and thus we might want to turn to the vision of a city, at night, its many lights centered around a hub, being our new image of the church.  To get there we must move from a bounded set mentality to centered set one.  Borrowing from anthropologist Paul Hiebert, Friesen suggests (rightly in my mind) that focusing on maintaining boundaries will not get us to where we want to be.  Instead, we should focus on the center, that which binds us together.  Moving toward Christ, we cluster together, and thus are bound together by the Holy Spirit.

    The book is interesting and challenging.  Those in the younger set will understand the language it is used.  Those who are not as adept in social networking, especially clergy and church leaders over fifty might struggle.  One thing that’s not dealt with very well in much of the literature (and that includes this book) is what we do with those who are not adept at social networking.  How do we keep the older one’s from falling through the cracks?  Now, I realize many over-seventy people are very active on the internet, but not to the degree that the younger set is.  This is a question, that at least for now needs to be considered.  It is one that I as a pastor of a long standing, rather traditional congregation, that desires to be missional, must keep in mind.  Still, this is a book worth engaging with all due seriousness.  Let us begin the conversation.

A Summit on Health Care -- the Way forward

 I didn't watch the Health Care Summit yesterday -- I had a pretty busy day at the church.  So, I have to take my cues from the clips and reports that I've seen since.  As one might expect, when it comes to nailing down what happened, it depend on who you check with.  If you support the GOP position, then they did well.  If you support the Democrats, they did well.  If you like the President -- well he did a good job, etc.

There was a bit of the old campaign fire in the conversation as McCain tried to tangle with the President, who reminded his former foe that the election campaign is over.  Both sides brought to the table their political agendas, and at times, apparently found some points of agreement.  But no agreement was to be found.  

The reality is that our political system has become so polarized, and the Republicans have gotten pretty good at using the filibuster in the Senate to put a stop to any Democratic Party efforts, that the government is at times grinding to a halt.  A Time Magazine article out this week notes that the GOP has used the Filibuster against 80% of the legislation before the Senate since Obama became President.  Much of this has to do with a collapse of any middle in our political system, especially in the Republican Party.   As Andrew Bettles notes in this article:

All this, it turns out, was a mere warm-up for the Obama years. On the surface, it appeared that Obama took office in a stronger position than Clinton had, since Democrats boasted more seats in the Senate. But in their jubilation, Democrats forgot something crucial: vicious-circle politics thrives on polarization. As the GOP caucus in the Senate shrank, it also hardened. Early on, the White House managed to persuade three Republicans to break a filibuster of its stimulus plan. But one of those Republicans, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter — under assault for his vote and facing a right-wing primary challenge — switched parties. That meant that of the six Senate Republicans with the most moderate voting records in 2007, only two were still in the Senate, and in the party, by '09. The Wednesday lunch club had ceased to exist. And the fewer Republican moderates there were, the more dangerous it was for any of them to cut deals across the aisle.
Note that Scott Brown, who voted to forward the recent jobs bill is being branded a traitor by the Right.  They thought he was one of them, but his background is fairly moderate.  We'll see if he crosses the aisle again.  As the article notes, the GOP learned in the Clinton era that they could win elections by running against government -- even if they control it!
The article notes that the modern filibuster doesn't require anyone to stand in the well and keep talking till the other side gives up -- all you need to do is say -- we've got enough votes to block that nothing can go forward. 

I've read a number of reports and op-eds today, trying to get a sense of what was accomplished or not.  The New York Times Op-Ed piece seems to catch the situation the best.  The two sides are too far apart to hope for a bi-partisan bill.  At the same time the GOP, with 41 votes won't allow a vote on a bill to come to  a vote. 

The Times editorial writer suggests that with the Republicans backing the status quo, the Democrats will have to go it alone.  The President refused to tie his hands, the way the GOP wanted him to do, so if something is going to get done, it will likely be through reconciliation.  It's not pretty in process, but to let it die (or scrap it) at this point would be as politically deadly as going forward.  The Democrats were given a majority in Congress.  Obama ran on a platform that included comprehensive health insurance reform.  He's made a number of concessions to the Republicans, hoping to get votes.  To go any further at this point would be to capitulate.  Now, the GOP might see gains in the next election, but they'll likely see them anyway.  So, as the Editorial says -- they should just go for it.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

In Toyota We Trust -- Sightings

I know, it's probably  a bit unseemly for a Ford-driving metro-Detroit resident to post a piece like this, but the posting by Frances Leap is quite interesting, for it talks about what we put our trust in and why.  I remember growing up, Toyota and Honda were considered less than desirable cars.  The Accord, for instance, was known by many as the "Accordian" -- of course the Accord of the 1970s wasn't a midsize car.  My uncle, who was an engineer for Boeing told my mom not to get a used foreign car for me because of their low reliability and the difficulty finding parts.  Now, the fact that I got a Ford Maverick should have cured me of my antipathy for foreign cars, but I've stuck with American!  But, I know that many my age and younger, especially those living on the West Coast have a love affair with Toyota that is hard to break.  Now, even as Chevrolet and Ford are offering more and more reliable vehicles, Toyota faces a major public relations problem.  It had begun to run on its laurels, much as the Big 3 had for years, and failed to attend to quality and to dealing with problems in their cars.  Now, that they seem to have broken this trust, many Toyota lovers are having a crisis of faith.

So, as the Toyota hearings wind down, Frances Leap offers a take on the travails of the world's leading car company, and its implications for faith itself! 

********************************
    

Sightings 2/25/10 
 
In Toyota We Trust
-- Frances M. Leap 
 
The nearly-blanket news coverage that Toyota and its unraveling have received from all media, but especially NPR, is an indicator of much more than a slow news time, which it is not.  The massive recalls seem to be a faith crisis for an entire segment of our population.
 
Who made up Toyota’s most loyal following?  The baby boom.  Why did the baby boom generation choose Toyota?  That story sounds very much like a faith conversion.  Our parents were solidly committed to The Major Brands.  There was a lot of rivalry, but also great respect among those who pledged competing allegiances.  I can remember an uncle goading my father every time something would break or even squeak on our Oldsmobile, because his Dodge was a paragon of beauty and reliability in his eyes.  But I also remember the respect with which he uttered the “he was an Olds man all his life,” at my father’s early funeral.  It was a sort of ecumenical cordiality.

There was absolutely no such respect or even tolerance to be given to next generation, though, when many made the choice for foreign-made vehicles.  They were not merely heretics – they were infidels who had turned to the East for their faith commitment.  Much of the baby boom generation seems to have driven “rice-burners” and driven the greatest generation nuts in the process.

This is probably one reason why we did it.  How does a generation grow up to distinguish itself from the one that liberated Europe in their young adulthood?  We longed for a moral high ground of our own and many found it in their automotive choices.  We may have rejected all things conservative and traditional, but we had our own righteous moral conversions to saving gas and conserving the environment.  We may not have believed very well in God, but we came to place deep trust in the skill of foreign car manufacturers.  

This hyper news coverage is not about Toyota as a business; it’s about Toyota as a locus of belief and the deep shaking of a generation’s faith.  Life may have been unreliable, relationships may come and go, but Toyota was forever.  One friend went through three “long-term” relationships in a single car.  She had parties when the long-termers moved on, but had a funeral when “Fidelio” (from the Latin for faithful) died.  She went out and married another right away.  Safe, sturdy, compact, we could enfold ourselves and those we loved best (at the time) into a trustworthy web of non-American engineering that identified us as committed to something, something even greater than our parents.  We looked beyond xenophobia to the future of the planet.

Why this obsession with massive Toyota recalls?  For Toyota to admit that they are not perfect, but will redouble their efforts for customer safety and value, is like finding out that there is no Santa, but your mother will carry on in buying your presents.  You may continue to practice Christmas, but something is lost that will never return.  For some, to think that Toyota knew about sticking gas pedals is akin to finding out that the bishops knew the game all along in the recent Catholic scandals – and even that did not receive as much national coverage despite the fact that nearly one quarter of America is Catholic.  This is a secular breach of trust at a deep level, and so a generational consciousness seems to seek healing by processing the trauma aloud in a kind of media therapy.  

The healing will come.  And it may come in much the same way that it has for Catholics.  Some will leave in disgust and irreparable distrust.   Others will stay because it is all they have known and cannot imagine anything else.  And some will heal, precisely at the moment when we see that all cars, and all institutions, are human-made.  To place our trust in anything human-made is to invite ourselves to an inevitable journey of disappointment that leads either to cynicism or to wise maturity.  Cars, and churches too, are important vehicles for the journey; but they can break down and betray us.  Staying on the journey is what counts.

Frances M. Leap is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Seton Hill University.
 
----------
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Religion among the Millennials

The blogs, Facebook, Twitter -- they're all talking about religion and the Millennial Generation.  This is the generation born between 1981 and 1992 (more or less).  It's the generation that envelopes my own son -- and the young adults in my church.  

A new Pew Research Report suggests what many of us in church work already knew, young adults are increasingly unaffiliated, especially in relationship to earlier generations.  Whereas at a comparable age, people of my generation (Boomer) saw maybe a 13% unaffiliated  rate at a similar age, it's climbed to 26%.  That's one out of four who feel that the church doesn't meet with their expectations of a community that sustains their faith.  They decry the institutionalism of the church.  

They believe in God at similar rates as earlier generations, but their understandings of God and social mores are different.  To give a key difference.  According to the poll, 78% of those born before 1928 say that homosexual relationships are always wrong, and 56% of my generation say the same, it drops to 43% among Millennials.  Personally, I suspect that the last number might either be a bit high, or softer than one might think.

Now, as I contemplate these stats I know that a group of young adults gathered on their own to share in a study of scripture and to pray at the church.  I had nothing to do with its planning or implementation.  More importantly, the group gathered was comprised of young people beyond our congregation as well as young adults from within.  To say the least, I'm excited about this.  I'm also going to do all I can to keep my hands off it!  

Christian Piatt, a Disciple young adult and husband of a Disciple pastor, has written a book, with his wife Amy, called Myspace to Sacred Space (Chalice), which tackles many of these questions, and according to his blog response to this report finds confirmation of what he discovered.  He writes today:

Yes, there is still a need for communities of people offering one another love, wisdom, support and mutual accountability, to challenge people to put their faith into transformational action and to give them the tools to do so. And insomuch as institutional church can facilitate that, I believe there is a place for it in today’s culture. But the degree to which the existing buildings, paid staff, boards of directors and bylaws will – or even should – be a part of that, I’m not so sure.

So, the question that faces us, as we contemplate this report, is:  how does the church put itself at the service of those who seek God, but find the institution too constraining or just plain irrelevant?


Note, I grabbed the chart from the Pew site.  There are other charts, so check it out.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Sad Day for a City

I know that in some circles today, there are victory parties and high-5s.  They will say that they have brought the city of Troy to its knees.  Interestingly it is former leaders of the city who have led the charge.  But with the votes in, the property tax millage went down to defeat.  I know that I received fliers, letters, and robocalls that not only urged a no vote but defamed city leadership and city staff.  Now, we face the loss of services -- closings of one of the best municipal libraries in the country, a beautiful community center that provides meeting places for community groups -- including young people, seniors, the disabled, and more.  The nature center and the museum face closure, and there will be cuts to the police force that makes Troy one of the safest cities in the country (we may pay less taxes now, but we'll likely pay more in insurance).  

Should we be all that surprised?  Probably not.  There is an anger and a frustration that is present in society, that is being stoked by interest groups.  The Tea Party folks, who played an important role in this round of defeats wants us to believe that the government is evil or dangerous or socialist or whatever.  My recent anonymous commenter crowed with delight, noting that the evil ones have been defeated.  Excuse me, the librarian, the police officer, the person that plows the streets, they're evil?   The city council (which we elect), the city manager, the assessor -- they're evil?  What have they done that is so evil?

I hear people say, well, we can take care of ourselves?  Really, we can take care of ourselves?  We don't need anyone else?  There is no commitment to the common good of the community?  I am concerned about the country, and for reasons far different from those expressed by the Tea Party Movement.  Reform is needed, dismantling the nation (or the city) is not.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Four Years a Blogger!

It was four years ago, Friday February 24, 2006,  that I created this blog and posted the first essays.  I started out small, not really knowing where this would go.  At some point, I read a post by Scot McKnight of Jesus Creed, back before he went with Beliefnet, which suggested that if you wanted to be a writer, you had to  devote time and energy.  That included, being a blogger, and so, that's what I've done.  I've tried to post something every day.   I posted a piece in November of 2006 that acknowledged Scot's advice.  I don't have his following, but over time the following has grown.
That first day I published three times.  Here is the very first posting, a posting that gave a sense of what I thought I was undertaking at the time.  

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Journey is an apt description of faith. When we think of the biblical story, of Abraham and Jacob, Moses and Jesus all were people on journeys. Faith is not so much a destination as it is a pathway. But we don't go alone. I take comfort in the promise of the Psalmist,

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff--
they comfort me."
Psalm 23:4

May we journey together along this path set before us. There will be danger and adventure, but it will never be boring.

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Oh, and the other two posts -- one had to do with Charles Darwin, Faith, and Evolution Sunday.  I recently republished it here.  Oh, and the other was the original picture for the site.  As I go back and look, things have changed a lot over the past 4 years.

Feeling a bit sheepish at this point, I do invite you to join in the anniversary "celebration."

Living into the Kingdom

 What does it mean to pray that God's kingdom might come into existence?  What role do we play in its emergence?  What are we committing ourselves to in offering this prayer?

New Testament scholar John Koenig writes that it's on this petition that the rest of the prayer hinges -- whether daily bread, forgiveness,  or deliverance from evil.  As I was reading through is chapter on the Lord's Prayer and the Kingdom of God -- in his book Rediscovering New Testament Prayer  (Harper San Francisco, 1992-- now available from Wipf and Stock) -- I came across a couple of paragraphs that really speak to the question of the day.  I'd like to share them and invite your responses.

I suspect that even when we pray "Thy kingdom come" most intentionally, most of us do not think of ourselves as true insiders, residents of God's reign who know pretty well how to enact it on earth.  At best, we are petitioners at the doorway of the kingdom, painfully conscious that we have not yet arrived at anything resembling a condition of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.  At most, we receive glimpses and foretastes of the feast.  
But that is just the point, for our self-perception is nothing other than an accurate mirroring of the human situation as seen by Jesus and the New Testament writers.  Indeed, Paul reminds us that even when we are led by the Spirit, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Rom. 8:26).  When we pray "Thy kingdom come," we are not relying on our virtue or ingenuity, or even our understanding of what we ask for, but on the power of the Holy Spirit to help us welcome God's loving interventions.  Precisely in the chief petition of the Lord's Prayer the Spirit leads us by renewing our hearts, guiding us into truth and sanctifying what we offer. We do not stand alone at the doorway to the feast but in company with the Go-Between God.  And somehow, through God's overflowing mercy, our prayer helps to bring the kingdom in, and us into the kingdom.  (Rediscovering New Testament Prayer, p. 47).  

Standing at the doorway, not knowing the entirety of the vision and not embodying yet the love, peace, and righteousness of the kingdom, we pray that God's reign would be made present in our lives.  To do that, God will likely turn our lives and our world upside down. 

God's Kingdom -- the Great Divine Clean up

My friend Steve Kindle, in a comment on an earlier post, suggested that we look to Crossan and Borg to get a sense of the context of the Prayer Jesus taught the disciples.  The second petition, which we will consider this coming Sunday, speaks of the coming of the kingdom, so that God's will might be done on earth as it has been in heaven.

Looking to John Dominic Crossan for a moment, he writes in his book God and Empire this of the Kingdom of God:

"The Kingdom of God" was a standard expression for what I have been calling the Great Divine Cleanup of this world.  It was what this world would look like if and when God sat on Caesar's throne, or if and when God lived in Antipas' palace.  That is very clear in these parallel phrases of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:10:  "Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven."  The Kingdom of God is about the Will of God for this earth here below.  That earthly presence agrees, of course, with everything we have seen so far about apocalyptic eschatalogical expectation.  It is about the transformation of this world into holiness, not the evacuation of this world into heaven.  (God and Empire, HarperOne, pp. 116-117).  
The concern here, according to Crossan, is with changing the way the world runs and works.  It puts God's kingdom in opposition to Caesar's.  So, what does that mean for us?  We don't live in Caesar's kingdom.  In fact, at least in theory, it's "we the people" who govern ourselves.  It is our kingdom -- so how does that relate to God's kingdom?  In what ways are we participating in the transformation of the world in which we live.  Calvin would have us live in opposition to the world.  Is that what is expected of us?  Constantine would have the world define the Kingdom?  What is that Jesus wants of us?

Time to Vote for the Future of Troy, Michigan!

The polls are open, the city's plows have cleared the streets as they always do with great dispatch, and so it's time to vote.  You've seen the signs, received the mailings, and likely received the robocalls.  They've been telling you that you'll be receiving a 29% tax increase if the measure passes.  This is not true.  Due to falling values, taxes will go down for most folks in the city -- unless you live in one of the few areas of the city where values have stayed the same or risen (lucky you).  Even then, it's still not a 29% tax increase -- but the opponent's math sounds so simple it must be true.  Unfortunately, that's not the way you figure the tax.  If you think you're going to get a big tax increase, before you vote, check with the assessor's office.  Oh, and just to note -- Bloomfield Township to our west has a 1.3% millage increase, while Sterling Heights to the East is contemplating one.  So, it's not as if Troy is alone in this.

You've been told that the workers should do with less, they are willing to take cuts, and many full time employees have been replaced with part-timers who don't receive benefits.  You've been told that the city government shouldn't be trusted (though even some of the opponents will admit that the city is well-run).  You've been told that the city can get along without the "non-essentials," such as the library, which saw over 600,000 patron visits last year.  

Maybe you've seen postings raising questions about the funding of the vote yes campaign -- suggesting that city employees are behind it.  Well, great, I'm glad they love the city they serve.  What we don't know is who is funding the vote no campaign.
So, I've had my rant.  As for me and my house, we are voting yes, because we value the services this city provides.  We may not use them all, but we're glad they are present in the community.  This is why our family moved to this community -- it provided a high quality of life at an affordable price!  Finally, let me say, that the difference between public services and those of the private sector is that they are open to all and provided at a level most all can afford.  I'm voting yes, because I'm committed to the common good of all.  



Monday, February 22, 2010

Thy Kingdom Come . . .

Having prayed the first petition of the Lord's Prayer, asking the God would hallow God's name in our lives, we move on to pray that God's kingdom would come in its fullness.  This is a petition that seems odd, or should seem odd, to those of us living in a modern republican democracy.  Living in a country that threw off its monarch more than two centuries ago, monarchy seem old fashioned and inappropriate.  Even nations with monarchs, such as England or Spain, don't accord the monarch any real power.  Indeed, in many ways, the monarch is one who goes to funerals and opens shopping centers.  

And so, here we are, invited by Jesus, to pray that God's kingdom might come into existence.  The text that I chose to use Sunday as a catalyst for the sermon is Luke 13:18-21. 

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

 He said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

The Parable of the Yeast

 And again he said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

If we go to Eugene Peterson's The Message, the first metaphor is changed, but it might make more sense to those of who know mustard to be a low lying bush with small yellow flowers:
The Way to God
 18-19Then he said, "How can I picture God's kingdom for you? What kind of story can I use? It's like a pine nut that a man plants in his front yard. It grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches, and eagles build nests in it."  20-21He tried again. "How can I picture God's kingdom? It's like yeast that a woman works into enough dough for three loaves of bread—and waits while the dough rises."
However, we understand the kingdom, it doesn't seem to come with great armies, conquering as it goes.  As I was planning worship for Sunday I was looking at hymns that touch on this theme, and by and large they carry with them a militaristic sense.  

Of course, Onward Christian Soldiers, which I remember singing in the Episcopal Church as a child, isn't in the hymnal, but Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross still stands. I looked at Ernest Shurtleff's Lead on, O King Eternal, but it too has the militaristic sense to it:

Lead on, O King eternal,
The day of march has come;
Henceforth in fields of conquest
Thy tents shall be our home.
Through days of preparation
Thy grace has made us strong;
And now, O King eternal,
We lift our battle song.
 Though the second verse does note that:

For not with swords’ loud clashing,
Nor roll of stirring drums;
With deeds of love and mercy
The heavenly kingdom comes.
So, as we begin to consider this petition, I'll start the conversation off by again by quoting from John Calvin.  I think it's his recent 500th birthday that has gotten me to attend again to him, though I've never been a Calvinist!

God reigns where men, both by the denial of themselves and by contempt of the world and of earthly life, pledge themselves to his righteousness in order to aspire to a heavenly life.  Thus there are two parts to this Kingdom:  first, that God b the power of his Spirit correct all the desires of the flesh which by squadrons war against him; second that he shape all our thoughts in obedience to his rule.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:20:42)
For Calvin, the Kingdom seems to be a matter of the individual -- of God's reign over the desires of the flesh, so that one may live a heavenly life.  This is one view, but obviously it's not the only view.  It also doesn't seem to connect well with Jesus' teaching about mustard seeds and leaven, which seems to have a very different focus.



Sexuality -- Sightings

Well, the title says it all. It's the issue that in one way or another seems to dominate the conversation, except in the church. Martin Marty speaks today to the recently released report on sexuality and the churches, issued by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing.  I have already commented on the release here.  

Marty, who is always a wise observer, notes that Al Mohler took notice of the report, and while apparently attacking the paper, ultimately admitted that conservatives also struggle with the issue.  What Marty suggests is that if we agree that there is a problem in the house, maybe it's time for conversation rather than debate.

Take a look, offer your thoughts:

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Sightings 2/22/10

 Sexuality
-- Martin E. Marty

Thirteen months ago Sightings commented on a report by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, and its unsurprising finding that most theological seminaries do nothing to prepare future ministers to deal with sexual issues.  They do almost as little on economic issues.  Can we all agree that sex and mammon are the dominating issues in culture, politics, society, and thus in religion?  Leaders cannot get a quorum in churches, synods, assemblies, conventions, retreats, and programs to discuss classic theological themes – in the Christian case, about God, Jesus Christ, salvation, and more.  Yes, Scripture comes up a good deal, but mainly from partisans on all sides who scour those scriptures to find “proof passages” for their preset positions.  “Sex” and “economics,” along with “war,” are “it” in our epoch.
           
The Institute is back with a new report, “Sexuality and Religion 2020.”  Its authors speak well of progress toward enlightenment during the past decade, but also discuss deficiencies.  I’ve been involved with a couple of phoned press conferences and media appearances on this issue and, to prepare, I’ve studied the report thoroughly.  This time seminaries get treated briefly, and then it’s on to critiques of clergy, congregations, religious leaders, adult educators, people in the pews, and everyone else in range who close their eyes to the need for better approaches to the subject.  The Institute, to its credit, does not narrow its attention to the usual trinity of homosexuality, contraception, and abortion, but focuses more on justice issues and “pastoral needs” that often get overlooked in the debates and proposals.

Signers of those two Institute statements tend to come – well, they do come – from the religiously liberal end of the spectrum.  But they do not have the field to themselves:  One of the creative results of the issuing of these papers is the fact that they have evoked responses from the religiously conservative end.  Widely circulated was a blog from Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who asks “Are Preachers Too Silent About Sex?”  Yes, he agrees with the Institute, but from there on he disagrees with all the Institute’s positions and proposals.  His is both an attack on liberal failures and an agreement that no one handles sexuality-and-religion well.
           
Wouldn’t it be nice if these polar positioners were not “preaching to their congregations” and “firming up their bases” but were somehow able to carry on honest, open, text-based dialogues toward de-polarizing ends and human good, beginning with “churchly” good?  Ask me how to get the two sets of believers into interaction with each other, and I’d run for cover, so tempted toward defeatism and fatalism on this subject one is conditioned to be.  But, based on the thousand clips and releases and blogs which Sightings has surveyed over these years, I will ask one question that has to do with tonality, style, and approach:  “What if” the matter were approached more through conversation and less through argument?  Argument, as we often note, is set by the answers, but conversation by the questions.  In argument we attack and defend on the basis of positions we know and hold.  Conversations are determined by questions in which we inquire also about what we don’t, and can entertain the new.  
             

References:

The Institute paper, “Faithful Voices on Sexuality and Religion” is available from www.religiousinstitute.org; the blog of Executive Director Debra W. Haffner is

President Mohler’s blog column is http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/mohler/11626280/.
 
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com
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In this month’s edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum, Sarah Imhoff introduces us to the Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu, who weds reggae music with strong pronouncements of Jewish faith and identity.  Imhoff notes that a common concern for music critics and Matisyahu's coreligionists alike resides in issues of authenticity.  Music critics ask if he's "reggae" enough; Orthodox Jews debate whether he's "Jewish" enough. By troubling categories of identity and their relationships with artistic form, Imhoff explores the limits of "authenticity" in aesthetic and religious performance.  With invited responses forthcoming from Melvin L. Butler (University of Chicago), Judah Cohen (Indiana University), Annalise E. Glauz-Todrank (University of California, Santa Barbara), Elliot A. Ratzman (Swarthmore College),and Nora Rubel (University of Rochester).
http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml 
 
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Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Grad students -- making bad life choices?

Saw this YouTube piece at Ben Meyer's blog -- Faith and Theology.    Having been a grad student (I am a Ph.D. after all), I do somehow resemble this Simpson's send up. 

As Marge says -- "Don't make fun of Grad Students, they just made a terrible life choice."


First Sermon audio "podcast" -- Worshiping the Holy God: Lord's Prayer Series #1

This morning we used our new digital recorder at Central Woodward and made our first audio podcast -- thanks to the work of my son Brett and Will Boyd our web designer.  We didn't do any major editing to the audio, so its somewhat raw.  As I listen to the audio, I must admit that I'm not used to hearing myself speak.  Thus, this seems rather strange to me.  Still,  if you're more the audio type than the reading type, I invite you to check out the podcast, and subscribe if you'd like.

The sermon is the first in a series of sermons looking at the Lord's Prayer.  We pray this prayer every Sunday, but what do we mean when we say these words -- Our Father and Hallowed is Your Name?

Now, for one last item, I'd like to thank Will Boyd of 3 Story Church for doing such an excellent job with our web site.  If you have a church and want a well designed and functional web site, I'd suggest checking with Will. 

So, if you want to check out the sermon -- whether in print or in audio -- click here.

Worshiping the Holy God -- The Lord's Prayer Series #1

Isaiah 6:1-8

    Every Sunday we recite the prayer that Jesus is said to have taught his disciples.  It’s a prayer that many of us know by heart.  There is, of course, a debate as to whether this is a model for us to follow or a prayer to be said as is.  There are good arguments on both sides, but my sense is that this really isn’t an either/or situation.  Instead, we will be blessed both by using the prayer as a model and by using it as our own prayer to God. 

    John Calvin suggested that while the form has value, we shouldn’t feel so bound to the form that we’re unable to change a word or syllable.  The point is not the form but the meaning, but still the form has great beauty and meaning.  And so he writes:  

    Truly, no other can ever be found that equals this in perfection, much less surpasses it.  Here nothing is left out that ought to be thought of in the praises of God, nothing ought to come into man’s mind for his own welfare.  And, indeed, it is so precisely framed that hope of attempting anything better is rightly taken away from all men.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,  John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, Trans. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, 3:20:49.).  

As Calvin puts it, even in its brevity there is such perfection in the prayer that we cannot surpass it.  

    Although it may be perfect and complete, the very fact that we recite it every Sunday could lead to it becoming simply rote and stale words that have little or no meaning.  And there is spiritual danger in this, for as Jesus says concerning our prayers, don’t “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).   Therefore, so these don’t simply become words quickly mumbled, it is a good thing to occasionally stop and consider the meaning of these words.   With that in mind, for six of the next seven Sundays, including Easter, we will attend to the prayer the Lord has taught us. 

    We will begin our journey with the opening sentence of the prayer: “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven; Hallowed be thy name.”  As you can tell from Luke’s version, which we heard this morning, the statement is briefer. Just, “Father” and “Hallowed is your name.”  Since Jesus tells us to pray in this way, I want to focus on two points this morning – our address of God as Father and the phrase that follows:  “Holy is your name.” 

1.  Our Father

    Although Protestants know this prayer as the Lord’s Prayer, the Orthodox call it the Jesus Prayer and Catholics know it as the “Our Father.”  The question is, what does it mean for us to address God as “Our Father?”

    Sometime ago, much was made of Jesus’ alleged use of the Aramaic word abba.  If you read books on prayer you might find reference to the uniqueness of this usage, and suggestions that Jesus was using an intimate form of address – even that of a young child.  Although I believe that we are invited into an intimate relationship with God, biblical scholars have raised significant questions about this usage, its uniqueness and how we should interpret it.  It’s important to note that the Aramaic Abba is found only once in the gospels, and that doesn’t include either version of the Lord’s Prayer.  In both accounts we will find the Greek word pater, from which we get words like patriarch and patron.  

    So, what does Jesus mean when he teaches the disciples – and us – to pray to God as our Father?    I’d like to start with the word pater or father.  To get a sense of what this means, we might want to think in terms of a patron or sponsor.  Such an idea would reflect well Jesus’ own context.  We’ve been watching Roman history movies lately because of one of Brett’s classes, and one of the themes present in these movies is patronage or adoption into a family.  One needn’t be born into a family to have all the rights and responsibilities of a member of the household.  One can inherit this by adoption.  And in the Roman world, the Emperor was the Great Father of the people.  So, one could say that in praying this prayer, the early Christians were signaling that their allegiance was with God, and not the emperor.  While they would be obedient members of society, that obedience lasted only as long as it didn’t run contrary to the teachings of their faith.  There was, for Christians, only one patron or sponsor, and that was God, who had adopted them into the household of God.   So, as we pray this prayer, let us ask ourselves – to whom do we owe our allegiance?  To God or to nation, family, or some other identity? 

    Although Luke doesn’t include the word “our,” Matthew does, and I think that this word is important, because it signals two things – first our faith has a corporate sense, not just an individualistic one.  Second this word signals that God has invited us to join the family.  When Jesus invites us to pray to “our Father,” he is including himself in that statement. He may be a son by descent, but we are children of God by adoption, and so God is our Father.  And turning once more to Calvin, we are reminded that in praying this prayer as children God, we pray knowing that the one who hears our prayers can be trusted.  Calvin writes:
    By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father.  Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" (1 John 3:1).  (Institutes, 3:20:36)

    Pushing this a bit further, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that having been freed from the spirit of slavery we can now cry out “Abba Father,” because the Spirit is speaking through us giving witness to our adoption as children of God.   Yes, it would appear that Paul doubles-down on this relationship by combining the Aramaic Abba with the Greek Pater, to emphasize this change in status.  Therefore, when we address God as our Father – recognizing the gender related problems inherent in that confession, we  give thanks that God has adopted us into the family, making us “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-18).  Whatever promises are made to Jesus, our elder brother, are made to us, and we can receive them in trust, knowing that God’s love for us is infinite in character and breadth.   Therefore, we need not be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6).

2.  Holy Is Your Name

    Having addressed God as “Our Father,” we turn to the first petition of the prayer, asking that God’s name would be made holy in our lives. This petition reflects the commandment, which was given to the people of Israel at Sinai –
    You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (Deut. 5:11).

The commandment speaks of respect, reverence, and honor, and this sense is present as well in Jesus’ teaching on prayer.  Perhaps this is why he says that we should pray in secret and not think that the wordiness of our prayers will impress God (Matt 6:5-8).  Both the commandment and the instructions remind us that  when we pray, our focus is directed toward God.  

    This sense of holiness and awesomeness, which is present in the prayer, is also picked up in our opening hymn.  This hymn reflects the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6 (Isa. 6:1-8) and again in Revelation 4 (Rev. 4:8-11). The hymn speaks of rising early in the morning to declare one’s allegiance to the God who is merciful and  mighty, and to whom we bow in worship.   

    To get a sense of what is meant by this phrase, we might turn to Isaiah 6, where we find the prophet being overwhelmed by his vision of God’s throne.  As the prophet envisions the heavenly scene, all that’s on his mind is his own unworthiness to stand before God.  Or, as the hymn puts it – only God is holy, and whatever holiness we might attain is derivative, coming forth from our relationship with this living God.

    As we consider the prayer and what we mean by these words, the phrase “holy is your name,” helps qualify our sense of being in relationship with God.  I do believe that God desires an intimate relationship with us, for God is Love.  But, this relationship also is rooted in God’s holiness.  Consider that when God appears to Moses in Sinai in the form of a burning bush, God said  to Moses 

    “Come no closer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place in which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:4-5).

That is, not only is the heavenly realm holy, but since God dwells amongst us, the very ground we tread is holy ground.  It is, as Michael Crosby, a Catholic priest, puts it:

If God’s name is going to be made holy on earth as it is in heaven, the consecration of God’s presence or name must begin in the ground of our being.  In the power of this name everything in our house – be it at the individual, interpersonal, and infrastructural level – must be honored; everything that profanes that name must be resisted.  Such is the task of those who belong to the household of that God whose holy name is revealed in the I Am. (Michael Crosby, The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, 2002, pp. 61-62)

God’s name is made holy, not just in our words, but in our very lives.  It is for this reason, that even though our relationship with God might be intimate in nature, it isn’t one of equals, lest we seek to take advantage of God’s name and profane that name in the way we live.       

    With the prophet, we may my cry out to God, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we might live anew this petition, that God’s name might be hallowed in our lives. And if God’s name is made holy, then with the prophet we may experience great joy and find our calling in life.   With this as our starting point, we can continue the journey through this prayer, contemplating its meaning for our lives.     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our Father -- One In Whom We can Trust

I begin tomorrow a sereies of six sermons on the Lord's Prayer.  I had originally intended to end the series on Palm Sunday, but I needed to vacate the pulpit one Sunday, so we'll end on Easter.  As I begin the series tomorrow, we will lift up the opening phrase:  "Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name."  The opening words, "Our Father" ( πάτερ ἡμῶν) sets the town and has nuances that need to be explored.  As I noted in a posting yesterday there is much scholarly debate about how the word Father is used in the Gospels.  In both versions of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9ff and Luke 11:1-4), the Aramaic Abba is not present.  Rather it is the Greek pater.  To argue theologically from Abba is to argue from silence.  Anyway,  as I'm thinking through this text, I've been dabbling a bit into John Calvin.  Calvin has a bad rap, but he has much wisdom to impart, if we're willing to work through the difficult and challenging parts. 

As to this phrase "Our Father," he notes that by inviting us to share this phrase, Jesus is signifying our adoption as children of God.  But what does it mean for us to have this opportunity?  Calvin writes:

Therefore God both calls himself our Father and would have us so address him.  By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father.  Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" (1 John 3:1).  But just as he surpasses all men in goodness and mercy, so is his love greater and more excellent than all our parents' love.  Hence, though all earthly fathers should divest themselves of all feeling of fatherhood and forsake their children, he will never fail us (cf. Ps. 27:10; Isa. 63:16), since he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:12).  For we have his promise:  "If you, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:11p.)? Similarly, in the prophet:  Can a woman forget her . . . children? . . . Even if she forgets, yet I shall not forget you." (Isa. 49:15p.)  But a son cannot give himself over to the safekeeping of a stranger and an alien without at the same time complaining either of his father's cruelty or want.  Thus, if we are his sons, we cannot seek help anywhere else than from him without reproaching him for poverty, or want of means, or cruelty and excessive rigor.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:20:36)

Although the idea of a child-like intimacy that was perhaps envisioned by Jeremias may not be present in the text, there remains a strong sense of intimacy here in any case.  For as Calvin suggests, from whom can we expect greater love than from God our Father.  Now, again, there is an issue that must be acknowledged.  Addressing God as Father carries with it certain patriarchal nuances that we must acknowledge and wrestle with.  Nonetheless, Calvin does remind us that we are children of God and that this status -- not of birth but of adoption is important.