Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ending Combat without Bravado

On May 1, 2003, more than seven years ago, President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific with much fanfare, wearing the flight suit of a Navy pilot.  With the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him, the President of the United States, in triumphalist tones declared an end to "major combat operations" in Iraq.  He commended the military and his war planners for their work in swiftly bringing down the enemy in Iraq, as well as destroying the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

President Bush spoke of the noble cause that the Armed Forces had engaged in and commended them for their bold and swift victory (you may remember Donald Rumsfeld announcing the beginning of the war in terms of "shock and awe."

In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty and for the peace of the world. Our nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment. Yet it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it. Your courage, your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other made this day possible. Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free. Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision, speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before. 

From distant bases or ships at sea, we sent planes and missiles that could destroy an enemy division, or strike a single bunker. Marines and soldiers charged to Baghdad across 350 miles of hostile ground, in one of the swiftest advances of heavy arms in history. You have shown the world the skill and might of the American armed forces.
The way forward might be difficult, but the people of Iraq were free from tyranny and Al Qaeda was deprived of its possible source of nuclear weapons (the President seems to have forgotten that a rather unstable Pakistan did have such weapons).  He went on to couch this in terms of the War on Terror that began on September 11th, thereby justifying the war in terms of a response to that attack.

But as we know, despite the military prowess of the US Armed Forces and their allies, the President's vision proved to be an illusion.  Saddam Husein might have been defeated and executed, and the Taliban might have been driven from power in Afghanistan, but the road to recovery still remains daunting in Iraq, which remains without a government, and as for Afghanistan, it faces a resurgent Taliban, which simply slipped across the border.
So, tonight another President, one who inherited two wars being fought in Muslim lands (even as 20% of Americans mistakenly believe he's Muslim and many more believing that he kowtows to Muslims), will announce the end of US combat operations.  50,000 troops remain in Iraq in training and support positions, much as 35,000 American troops remain in South Korea, nearly sixty years after that conflict ended with what amounts to a lengthy ceasefire.  Instead of delivering his message from the flight deck of a carrier, he will speak from the Oval Office.  There will be, I'm sure, commendations for the troops, who have been put in harms way.  He will note the sacrifices of those who have died in service to their country.  But it's unlikely that there will be the bravado that accompanied the last speech.  As the President noted earlier today, there will be no victory laps.  Of course, it's quite possible that few Americans will pay attention.  As one pundit noted earlier today on NPR, for most Americans, the Iraq War, the end to which President Obama originally based his campaign, has been forgotten by many Americans.  Afghanistan, a war zone that predates Iraq, and which got lost in the shuffle as we carelessly ventured into Iraq, remains as volatile today as it did nine years ago.  

I am glad that combat troops have returned home.  I'm just sad that we got caught up in another quagmire.  As for the Iraqi's -- they may no longer have Saddam, but they also are without electricity and security.  This isn't the vision laid out in that earlier Presidential speech, but its the reality that this current President must wrestle with.  In making these observations, I'm not placing blame on the ability of the to perform its job.  I don't want to get into a debate about the surge in 2007.  I'm lamenting our lack of vision as a nation that we have yet to realize that we cannot impose our will on the world by force.

A Good Enough Theology: Evangelical Passion (Bruce Epperly)

What is a "Good Enough Theology?"  And in defining this notion of theology, where might evangelicalism fit?  One of the things about evangelicalism, is that it is a hard term to pin down.  I'm a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical flagship institution, but Fuller is quite different from other institutions in the evangelical community, such as Dallas Seminary or even Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  There are conservative evangelicals and there are those, like me, who want to retain our connection with evangelical sensibilities and would be comfortable with the designation "liberal evangelical."  Then there are those who see themselves as "evangelical liberals," a designation that Bruce Epperly, the author of this series of posts, is quite willing to affirm.  If you are a liberal or progressive Christian, what might you take away from the evangelical mindset that can broaden and deepen your faith?  That is the purpose of Bruce's essay today (and next week he'll be bringing in fundamentalism). 


A Good Enough Theology: Evangelical Passion

Bruce Epperly

For the past two weeks, I have affirmed that a good enough theology has the stature to embrace diverse theological and spiritual approaches. We can compare theological wholeness, or stature, to a balanced diet – recognizing favorite foods, but also including side dishes that not only add flavor but vitamins and minerals. We need basic foods, good theology, but also good seasoning, liveliness. As a progressive Christian, I recognize that I need to include the heart as well as the mind, contemplation as well as action, passion as well as intellect, to have a complete and balanced theological diet. Last week, we reflected on the gifts of the Quakers: the vision of God’s presence in everyone, the importance of contemplative prayer, and commitment to action for justice based on recognizing God in every face. Today, I will reflect on the evangelical passion for a personal relationship with God and Jesus.

Recently, I had a conversation with a member of a liberal/progressive congregation. He commented that although his pastor is a good preacher, he virtually never mentions Jesus in his sermons. I have heard this observation/critique many times from liberal/progressive congregants. They hear Jesus occasionally mentioned as the example of a “way of life,” but seldom as a contemporary reality - a personal reality - that can be experienced in daily life. While liberals and progressives are rightly concerned about making an idol of Jesus, seeing Jesus solely in individualistic terms, or promoting a relationship with Jesus that leads to denigrating other religious traditions, I believe that the evangelical passion for Jesus, for a personal relationship with God, contributes energy and vitality that balances and adds life to intellectual and contemplative faith experiences.

Now, many liberals are uncertain about using the word “evangelical.” For them, it connotes social and theological conservatism, televangelists, and religious exclusivism. In contrast, I like the word “evangelical”: perhaps, because I was raised in a small town Baptist church, perhaps because it points to the importance of passion in faith, perhaps because it reminds us that we have good news to share. While labels can be limiting, I am particularly fond of descriptions such as “evangelical liberals” and “spirit-centered progressives.” I claim them both, and believe that there is good news to be found in embracing both evangelical and Pentecostal perspectives as part of a good enough theology. (We will speak of spirit-centered faith next week.)

Anne Lamott uses the term “Jesus-y” to describe her faith, and that works for me. As a progressive-oriented Christian, I claim that Jesus is alive, not just as the proponent of a way of life, but as a personal reality within the dancing (perichoresis) trinity of divine creativity and companionship within God, us, and the world. In unity of spirit with God, Jesus is as intimate as our next breath. Yet, Jesus’ intimacy invites us to a global spirituality. As our companion on a holy adventure, Jesus calls us to “follow” him in growing in wisdom and stature – in embracing God’s presence in the outcast, the diseased, the stranger, and the enemy. Jesus says “I am in the least of these” and you love me best by loving them. Jesus “walks with us and talks with us” in the midst of life’s challenges.

Loving in the spirit of Jesus means a lot of things, too, certainly it means hospitality and healing; it also means sharing “good news.” And, sharing good news involves both a “what” and a “how” – as progressives we can be as passionate about our faith as those who call themselves evangelicals because we have good news to share. Just look at Eric Elnes’ Phoenix Affirmations or the principles of progressive Christianity, articulated by the Center for Progressive Christianity; just look at my Holy Adventure (Upper Room, 2008) and you will discover that we have a faith we can share, a faith that changes lives. Claiming the following visionary affirmations can change your life and the lives of countless seekers:

God loves us and is present in our lives.
God wants you to have abundant life.
God rejoices in your creativity.
God’s grace embraces, forgives, and makes whole.
Jesus shows us a way to healing of mind, body, spirit, and the planet.
Wherever there is truth, God is its source, in all its many forms.
Jesus is your companion in life and death.
God’s spirit is constantly inspiring us.
God wants us to be partners in healing the world.

This list is far from exhaustive and you can make up your own progressive affirmations of faith; but one thing is clear, living with any one of these affirmations will change your life. These affirmations “preach, teach, and transform.” They call us to a full-voiced Hallelujah!

And, they call us to share our faith in the spirit of hospitality, healing, and respect – learning as well as proclaiming in the spirit of young Jesus at the temple. We can have passion, share good news, and also listen to the gifts of others as part of our affirmation of God’s global and graceful presence.

We progressives have a theology that transforms: if we can personalize this theology, experience it through contemplative practices, and embody it in socially-transforming actions, we can proclaim faith with passion. We can be evangelical as well as contemplative and theologically open-minded. A balanced theological diet of mind, heart, and hands gives life, vitality, and witness to the world, and us.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including  Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  His most recent book is From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Real Peace, Real Security -- A Review

REAL PEACE, REAL SECURITY: The Challenges of Global Citizenship. By Sharon D. Welch. Foreword by William F. Schulz. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008. xix +128 pp.

Peace and security – these are two states of being that most human beings desire. Yes, there are those who seem to relish conflict, or who glory in battle and destruction, but most people want to live in peace and security. The question that humans have wrestled with through the centuries concerns the means to this end, and to this point no one has been able to come up with a solution that resolves all conflicts and brings an end to all conflict and war. It has been assumed by many, perhaps a majority of people, that force is necessary if we wish to secure peace and security. A sizable minority, however, would disagree with this assessment. Sharon D. Welch, provost and professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School, is one who affirms nonviolence, but is also willing to hear out all voices. In Real Peace, Real Security, she offers a brief but very helpful book on this subject. In writing this book, Welch wants the reader to move beyond the debates that bedevil both “just war” advocates and pacifists. Rather than arguing whether one or the other is preferable, she seeks to push the discussion toward an end shared by both sides in the debate – peace on earth!

The book deals with such key issues as peacemaking, peace-building, peacekeeping, and creating space for an enduring security for all. She does this by attempting to bring to bear the religious, theological, and ethical traditions that are present in our world that will aid the international community in achieving this desired end. In writing this book, Welch wants to open our eyes to options that lie beyond either embracing the brutalities of war and simply standing by as genocide and crimes against humanity occur. She notes that finding this third way won’t be easy. It will take planning, patience and persistence. To move forward it is important that we understand the differences between “three constructive approaches to peace”: peacekeeping, peacemaking, and peace building. The first involves early intervention, the second bringing hostile parties into agreement, and the third seeks to create long-term structures that can help address the causes of the conflict. Each of these three stages is necessary if we are to move toward creating space for enduring security.

Although Welch is committed to nonviolence, and even pacifism, she is realist enough to understand that there may in fact be times and places where force might be necessary so as to create space for peacemaking and peace building to occur. The vision that Welch has for these forces is one that is more police action than soldiering. As we’ve seen in both Iraq and Afghanistan, invasion and occupation don’t work very well. As for nonviolent direct action, which is espoused by many as an alternative to coercive force, the author reminds us that while it can be very effective there are dangers that are intrinsic to it. First, Welch notes that can with overuse become “rote and ineffective.” This is especially true of mass marches, which might rally folks committed to the cause, but do little to communicate with opponents. Second, one must understand that direct action, even if nonviolent, “is a form of coercion that cannot build peace alone.” In fact, it often escalates the conflict and can disrupt communities. Therefore, this kind of action must be followed by reconciliation and restoration (pp. 10-11). To find an effective way of achieving peace and security, requires strategies that emerge from what the author calls “aesthetic pragmatism.”

The body of this book is composed of four chapters, one each on the above mentioned peacekeeping, peacemaking, peace-building, and enduring security. She begins with peacekeeping, a concept that we often connect with the blue helmets of United Nations forces. She defines peacekeeping as “the use of multilateral armed forces to prevent large-scale war and to stop genocide and crimes against humanity” (p. 16).

In the course of this first chapter Welch introduces the reader to the organizations and people involved in this effort, including the UN peacekeeping forces. The UN has been working on this since its founding in 1945, and its work has evolved. It has been recognized that the success of this effort requires that the military component be integrated with others – political, humanitarian, and dealing with human rights. In addition to exploring this evolution, Welch turns to ways in which the international community can respond to genocide and crimes against humanity. She notes that as of yet the UN has not been able to create the structures or the forces that can be used to prevent or stop criminal acts such as those happening in Darfur. One of the concerns she raises with regard to peacekeeping efforts is that there is a lack of consistency. To give an example, she points out the differences in response toward situations in Africa as opposed to Europe. There is also the problem of conflicting interests by the major powers. In exploring these questions she raises the issues of international consensus and the role of the just war tradition. Ultimately, she concludes that while force may in the end be necessary to prevent or stop a catastrophic event, it is in itself not sufficient. She writes:
The value of peacekeeping is not in resolving conflict, but in providing the space in which enduring security and sustainable peace may be created through the long-term nonviolent work of obtaining comprehensive political assent and participation (p. 40).

If peacekeeping is often a necessary first step, it must lead to peacemaking and then peace-building if an enduring security is to be achieved.

Peacemaking is the subject of the second chapter. This involves two different tracks of diplomacy. The first track is one that seeks to develop comprehensive peace accords. This often comes to pass only after the parties have reached a stalemate, where both sides realize that resolution is nowhere in sight, or when sufficient pressure is placed on the parties from both inside and outside the conflict that the parties realize it is in their best interest to negotiate. Once this happens, then reconstruction can begin. If track one diplomacy focuses on the political leaders, track two seeks to bring the citizenry into the picture. It is the process of gaining popular support for negotiated accords. If peacekeeping is designed to provide space so that political assent and participation can be achieved, peacemaking is designed to “create the space in which participatory peace may be forged.” This happens, as the parties involved address “legitimate expectations for fundamental social and economic change” (p. 51).

Peacemaking is designed to create the space for peace-building to take place. This involves three components – “waging conflict nonviolently, building capacity to meet basic needs, and transforming relationships” (p. 54). In working to build peace, it needs to be remembered that the goal is not to remove conflict, but to change the way it is dealt with. This is the key to security – until the relationships between the parties to the conflict are changed, the potential for renewed conflict is ever-present. Lasting justice requires “restitution, reconciliation, and reintegration,” and the key to this is the practice of “restorative justice.”

Peace keeping, peace making, and peace building form three essential parts of the movement toward “enduring security.” Achievement of this security, will not come by way of unilateral military dominance and American exceptionalism, which is the neo-conservative view that fueled the “Bush Doctrine.” President Obama has at points tried to move away from this “doctrine,” but it is deeply entrenched in the American psyche and thus difficult to move off of. Instead of unilateralism, Welch pushes us to consider those voices that call for multilateral action. It is a doctrine rooted in soft power and recognizes the limits of violence to accomplish this goal. As we look toward this hoped for security, it’s important to know that religion can be both a source of violence and a counter to violence. Some religions, such as Buddhism, with its focus on enlightenment can end up with quietism, while Christianity, with its more activist faith can end up with crusades. The key is not falling into either of these traps. And while crusades would more likely fall into the realm of neo-conservative activism, Welch warns Progressives and leftists that they can easily fall into self-righteousness.

In Real Peace, Real Security offers a sober and practical vision for achieving true security. Such security will come, not at the point of the sword, nor will it come from marches or rallies. It will come as we take the difficult steps toward keeping, making, and building peace. It comes when we recognize our own limits and fragility, that on both sides of the debate on the use of force there can be unintended consequences. It will require honesty and hope, along with what Welch calls “aesthetic pragmatism.” We must begin the move toward true peace, but recognizing that we must deal with the world as it is. This is a book deeply rooted in a commitment to nonviolence, but it is also deeply rooted in a pragmatic sense of what can be done and what must be done. As one who struggles with this issue, and has been unable to move toward pacifism, this book offers a helpful middle way, that in the end might lead to security without violence.

Resurrecting the Middle Judicatories

Last week I blogged Dick Hamm's essay written for The Columbia Partnership newsletter, entitled "The Death of the Middle Judicatory."  Since then I've spent part of Friday and most of Saturday at gathering of regional leadership.  Our region, which has a rather small number of churches, and which is spread out across the state of Michigan, finds itself in a difficult situation.  How do we provide effective leadership and support across this vast territory when the funds needed to sustain a traditional regional ministry are not present.   We are in a transitional moment, having called upon two of our own to serve as co-regional ministers for the interim, while we discern a way forward.  We know we need strong leadership for the region, but the question is -- what should this look like.  Before we call someone to this task, it's important that we understand not just the needs, but what the regional structures will look like.  Thus, we're looking at reducing board size (ours is an unwieldy number that includes reps from all congregations, as well as chairs of various commissions and constituency groups), a web site that will allow for better communication, and finding ways of effectively spreading around responsibility for various aspects of church life.  Too often in the region, as in many congregations, staff ends up doing all the work.  That's not healthy for regions or congregations, and its especially not healthy for staff.

As we know with the story of Jesus, even as there is death, so there is also resurrection.  In proclaiming the death of the middle judicatory, Dick Hamm was speaking of the old "hub and spoke" model, in which everything flowed through and was essentially accomplished by the regional minister or staff.  That worked well in the 50s and 60s when even small regions had sufficient staff.  That's no longer true.  So, if death has occurred, what does resurrection look like?

Dick Hamm suggests that in this new era, we define the middle judicatory in terms of a "matrix of relationships," rather than a "hub and spokes."  Thus, instead of everything going from regional office to congregation, a web of relationships is nurtured and developed, so that congregations assist congregations, pastors assist pastors, and community is encouraged. 

Dick names a number of interesting ways that this can happen.

One is the development of "Judicatory Spiritual Leaders."  Dick defines this group of individuals in this way:
They are trustworthy clergy and lay leaders who demonstrate spiritual and emotional maturity, and commitment to the whole church. These groups are created by the judicatory to engage in regular visitation of congregations and clergy.
We are just getting on board with this, commissioning Regional Elders at our last Regional Assembly.  These are men and women who have exactly the qualities that Dick has defined.  Some of them carry specific responsibilities -- such as relating to men's ministries or women's ministries -- as well as serving to represent the region with congregations assigned to their care. 

A second way that this matrix can be created and sustained is through Resource Teams.  Dick writes of these teams:

Every middle judicatory has some individuals who are gifted and/or experienced in certain areas—youth ministry, spiritual disciplines, stewardship campaigns, teaching, etc. These folks can be recruited and trained to serve as consultants or coaches with congregations on behalf of the judicatory. Of course, their local responsibilities must be honored in determining how much time they have for such work, but most folks who are good at particular things are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience with other leaders and congregations.
These can be people working with youth, missions, technology and the church and more.  Too often regional committees function as many congregational ones -- they provide oversight to the staff.  This no longer works -- our teams need to function in a way that carries out ministry, lifting the burden off of staff, which is likely a rather small group of people (if that). 

He also speaks of Communities of Learning (affinity), which develop from within the interests of the community.

If there is one individual or congregation of the judicatory that is interested in a particular subject, there are most like several others. As judicatory leaders hear of such interests, they can help to draw together “learning communities” of similarly interested people. These learning communities may last for several months or several years, dependent upon the subject and the ongoing interest of participants. Because ownership is important, these groups are most effective when they develop their own leadership, rather than depending upon judicatory staff to lead them. Communities of learning will sometimes lead to the development of new resource teams.
He also talks about annual planning events and the creation of communication networks.  While many of these will be digital, he reminds us that we must remain aware of those individuals and congregations that are not up to speed on the digital highway.  But the digital highway is going to be key -- and it includes web sites, which must be easily updated and maintained by staff, blogs, and more. 

Now, you might be wondering:  what's left for staff to do?  Well besides no longer having to work 100 hours a week and having a life outside the office, they can be more effective in nurturing and equipping those who are engaged in ministry across the region (or whatever your middle judicatory is called).  Dick has a response to this question as well:
The staff—especially the ordained staff—continues to have a sacramental role, being present at sacred moments in the lives of congregations and individuals, though not necessarily to the exclusion of volunteer judicatory representatives. The staff still plays a connectional role, keeping an eye open for interests and needs and thus linking them up to resource teams, affinity groups and so forth. No one else has the bird’s eye view that staff develop. The staff must still serve in those roles that require one individual to do ministry on behalf of the whole, such as dealing with misconduct cases and other extremely confidential situations.

The staff, particularly the senior executive, are still among the only ones who have the authority (formal and informal) to deal with the most vexing and sensitive situations. Sometimes it takes the senior executive to be able to tell a group of trouble making members or a minister, “You! Out of the pool
This last responsibility is key.  Congregations and clergy need to know and respect the presence of someone who can hold them accountable.  There are too many clergy who abuse congregations, and congregations that abuse their pastors.  There are congregations that seek to go around the regional leadership in searching for pastors, and more often than not this ends badly.  There needs to be someone with the respect and authority from outside to come in help them work things out -- this is that crisis management/conflict resolution responsibility that is so important.

Middle Judicatories, as we discovered last week play an essential role in maintaining healthy congregations, but the old ways no longer work.  So, we must begin finding new ways of encouraging and developing health congregations.

By the way, Dick Hamm is the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and now a consultant for The Columbia Partnership. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Know Your Place -- A Sermon

Luke 14:1, 7-14

What would Emily Post say? If the President invites you to a party at the White House, where should you sit? If you arrive early, should you go and save that empty seat up front at his right hand? It sure would be great to sit as close as possible to the center of attention, but maybe it would be better to take a seat farther back in the crowd. Of course, proximity to greatness does suggest greatness!

Back in the Soviet era, when Leonid Brezhnev was still running things, Time Magazine would try to figure out who was next in line to succeed him. Since the Soviets weren't too keen on letting out the secret, the analysts at Time would watch where Politburo members stood on Kremlin wall overlooking Red Square during important events, like a May Day review of the troops. The assumption was that the closer you stood to Brezhnev, the closer you were to the top of the list. If you’d moved down a few spaces, well obviously you were on the way out of favor. You know that if Kremlinologists were paying such close attention to these details, there must have been a lot of jockeying for position on that wall.

Books, videos and audio tapes that carry titles such as How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People offer advice about climbing the corporate ladder and becoming all you can be. You’ll find something similar in the book of Proverbs, which also offers advice on successful living. The general theme is this: if you do this, you’ll succeed; if you do that you’ll fail. Generally speaking this is all good advice – consider for instance this word from Proverbs 25, in which the ancient Jewish advice columnist says: "Do not put yourself forward in the king's presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’, than to be put lower in the presence of a noble" (vs. 6-7). In other words, don't presume too much. If you want to be successful, then know your place, and show proper deference to your superiors.

The problem with Proverbs 25 is that it talks about deference, but not humility. Sometimes, advice like this can lead to manipulation. Consider that old Marabel Morgan book The Total Woman, which was a big seller back in the 1970s. Morgan told women to worship their husbands, greet them at the door in sexy outfits, and pretend to like sports. The flip side of this book was, if you give him what he wants, you’ll get what you want. If he thinks you’re submissive and attentive to his every need, then you can be in control. Believe me. Many women learned the lesson well, especially in the church. They may not have been up front or sit at the table at the board meeting, but their husbands didn't do anything without their permission.


Knowing how to behave in society has its place, and as you can see from Proverbs, Emily Post and Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the social advice genre. When it came to meals in the first century, they could often be important social events. That meant that you needed to know how to behave at them – something my mother tried to teach me at a young age.

Down through history, when important people have thrown big banquets and parties, they’ve invited the rich and famous to join them for their celebration. Anyone who is anyone will be on the guest list. If you’re not on the list, well I guess you simply aren’t all that important. On the day of the dinner, the host brings out the best china, the finest wines, and kills the fatted calf. After all, why bother with a dinner party, if you can’t impress your neighbors. But back to the guest list – an invitation isn’t enough. The seating chart is also a prime concern. Like the Kremlin wall, the seats closest to the host are always reserved for the most important guests. Which means, like a group of children playing a game of musical chairs, the guests will jockey for the best seats.

According to Luke, one day a wealthy pharisee invited Jesus to his house for lunch. When Jesus arrived, he noticed the other guests were jockeying for the best seats. Everyone was trying to find a seat at the head table, and therefore avoid sitting at the proverbial kid’s table. Jesus’ comment about this jockeying is reminiscent of Proverbs 25. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down in the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host." After all, you don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of being reseated at the back of the room, or worse, at the kid’s table. No, instead find a seat at the back, and then maybe the host, seeing your humility, will bring you up front.

Of course, Jesus isn’t in the business of offering advice on social graces. He isn’t interested in helping people climb the social or corporate ladder. Despite the many attempts to turn Jesus into a self-improvement teacher – remember ad man Bruce Barton’s 1920's classic: The Man Nobody Knows, which tried to portray Jesus as the greatest salesman in history – Jesus has something else in mind. Instead of offering a seminar on 10 Easy Steps to Social Success, Jesus tells a parable about finding one’s place at the table. It’s a word that calls for humility, because God isn’t all that concerned about our social status or whether the team wins the big game, despite what some athletes would have us believe.


In the kingdom of God, which is always the focus of Jesus’ parables, the rules in life get reversed and turned upside down. What you think should be true in life, may not be as true as you’ve been led to believe. The rules of etiquette get turned on their head, because, as Jesus says: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." This is a difficult concept to get our heads around. That’s because we know that if we’re going to succeed in life we have to promote ourselves. To give you a personal example – I’m a writer and I want people to read my blog and my books, which is why I set up a Facebook fan page for my blog. After all, if I don’t promote my blog or my new book on the Lord’s Prayer, which is due out in October by the way, then who’s going to promote them?

Yes, in our world, self-promotion is the name of the game. Do you think that the Heisman Award voters don't pay attention to the hype surrounding certain players? Why else, would colleges paint big posters on the sides of buildings in New York City or make video presentations available for the voters that lay out all the wondrous things the player has done. Yes, if you’re going to succeed in life, you have to market yourself. Because, if you don’t "look out for number 1,” then nobody will!

Unfortunately, Jesus has a different take on things. Remember that parables speak of what God is doing in the world. In telling his parable, Jesus reminds us that God is the one who humbles and who exalts. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, it is God who reverses the expected order of human relationships. That means, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.


In making his observation about the way in which God reverses our social rules, Jesus also touches upon the issue of reciprocity. Proper etiquette requires you to return the favor if someone invites you to a party. For the most part, that’s good advice, and to say otherwise will get me in trouble at home. But, Jesus wants us to understand that things are different in God’s realm. That’s because God is doing the inviting and not us. And so, Jesus tells us to send out invitations to people who can’t reciprocate. Instead of inviting the rich and famous, invite the poor, the lame, the blind, and the deaf. When you open the doors, be inclusive rather than exclusive, starting at the Lord’s Table, a Table that Jesus has set and at which he is the host. He has invited everyone, no matter their gender, their social status, their ethnicity, or even their theology to join him at his table. Yes, he has even invited you and me, even though we’re not in a position to reciprocate in any meaningful way.

What begins at the Lord’s Table should influence the rest of our lives – from the coffee hour to SOS, and beyond. I mention SOS for a reason. This is a ministry that we share with Congregational Church of Birmingham, along with many other churches and religious organizations in Oakland County. When we participate in SOS, we’re serving people who by and large can’t reciprocate. At the end of the week, we feel pretty good about ourselves and our ministry, which is okay, but we must beware of that human tendency to consider ourselves better than the people we serve. We must beware also of the tendency to think that we’re earning brownie points with God and with our neighbor. We serve not to impress others, but because it’s the way of the kingdom. We give to the Week of Compassion and Disciple Mission Fund, not because by doing so earns us a spot on the Top 100 Giving Churches in the denomination, but because we’ve been blessed with financial blessings, which we’re able to share. And the same is true of our increasing involvement with Motown Mission. We’re not going into Detroit believing that we’re going to save “those people” from their plight. We’re simply following our missional calling.

As we hear Jesus’ observation and the parable that follows upon it, we would be well served to remember that in the kingdom of God, as theologian Patrick Henry writes, Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian's Companion, (NY: Riverhead Books, 1999), 150). In the kingdom, hospitality comes with humility and a concern for the welfare of the other, instead of concern about our own social standing. That is not to say, that there are no blessings to be obtained in following our missional calling – our ultimate blessing comes in the resurrection, when we’re able to stand at the right hand of God with our elder brother, Jesus the Risen One!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 29, 2010
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Saturday, August 28, 2010

My Neopagan Pen Pal

I thought that interfaith dialogue had its limits—until I started talking with a Wiccan.

For many, paganism generally and Wicca in particular are synonymous with the occult, even Satanism. The presence of Wiccans at the groundbreaking for an interfaith chapel at a Disciples of Christ-related university brought streams of protests and a flurry of questions from the faithful. People asked/demanded: Why were they present?

This was the same sort of worry that led some Christians to raise concerns about the Harry Potter books and movies. They denounced the series because they feared that exposing children to magic—as if Disney movies hadn’t already done that a generation earlier—might lead them into witchcraft. The concern was that Harry made witchcraft look too good.

While Neopaganism and Wicca have exploded onto the religious scene in recent years—bookstores have shelves of books on these new-old religions—their popularity seems to derive not from an embrace of evil but from their noninstitutionalized character. They’re also popular for an emphasis on communing with nature, in a time when we face the prospects of global warming, overpopulation, urban sprawl and pollution. (Critics of environmentalism have thus equated that movement with the occult.)

I had never seriously considered engaging in conversation with a Neopagan or Wiccan until I wrote about Harry Potter in the local paper and received e-mails from Wiccans and Neopagans who thanked me for offering kind words about Harry Potter. My article was posted on Wiccan sites, where respondents expressed surprise that a Christian pastor could have an open mind and compassionate spirit toward Wiccans. Many said they've experienced persecution and discrimination from Christians. They feel that their religion has been mischaracterized.

In series of e-mails with a Neopagan, I got to know a man who is married, has adult children, a job and endeavors to live in peace with his neighbors. I think he’s fairly representative—although he admitted that, like anything else, Neopaganism has its oddballs.

One e-mail from my pen pal raised the issue of the Veteran’s Administration’s refusal to allow Wiccans to use the pentacle on VA-sponsored memorials. (The VA doesn’t recognize Wicca as a religion.) I don't understand why we would allow someone to die serving his country but not recognize his or her religious affiliation.

Of course, people of other religions experience similar discrimination. In Tennessee the candidate for lieutenant governor has suggested that Muslims don’t deserve to be covered by the constitutional provisions of religious freedom, because in his mind, Islam isn’t a religion.

Those of us who are members of the religious majority have a responsibility to speak up for those whose religious identities are mischaracterized and smeared. If we had a few more conversations with those who are different from us, life would be better for all of us.

Reposted from Theolog, the Christian Century blog, for which I am a frequent contributor

Friday, August 27, 2010

Humble and Hospitable -- a lectionary meditation

Proverbs 25:6-7

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
Luke 14:1, 7-14

Humble and Hospitable

Success in life requires self-promotion. It also involves reciprocity. If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. If you promote me, I’ll promote you. But there are dangers in both self-promotion and mutual back-scratching. They can backfire. You get something of this in the texts for this week. Both the reading from Proverbs and the gospel lesson speak of circumspection, recognizing your place, and not overstepping bounds. Standing in between these two texts, Proverbs and Luke, is the epistle of Hebrews, which commends a life of mutual love and hospitality. Humility and hospitality, two virtues that we would be wise to develop and nurture – not just so we can be successful in life, but so we can live out the promise of the life of faith.

As is often true there is more than one choice of texts from the Hebrew Bible. In addition to the Proverbs 25 passage, one could turn to Jeremiah 2:4-13, but it doesn’t fit the flow of the texts as well as does Proverbs 25. In many ways Jesus’ response to the jostling for the best seat in the house, simply restates the wisdom imparted by the earlier proverb. If you go to a party or a function where there are people of importance present, seat yourself at the back rather than at the head table. Don’t presume upon the host, and consider yourself of greater importance than is actually true. You don’t want the host coming to you and asking you to move back, because someone more important has arrived. Instead, start at the back, and perhaps the host, seeing your humility, will choose to bring you to the front and seat you among the people of importance. This is good advice, which we should all heed. Yes, we know that sometimes you have to do a bit of self-promotion if you’re going to succeed in life, but beware of the consequences.

If humility is one virtue imparted by these texts, the other is hospitality. Ancient society, like many non-western societies, put a great premium on hospitality. One of the stories that was often told suggested the possibility that the strangers who come into your midst, who knock at your door, might be angels or divine beings. So, you would be well-advised to treat the stranger, whether or not, they are angels, as if they are. That is the word we hear in Hebrews 13, a passage that covers a variety of issues as the sermon closes in a litany of does and don’ts. Don’t neglect hospitality to strangers – they could be angels. Remember, Lot welcomed strangers into his home, and they turned out to be angels. Abraham and Sarah also entertained angels, in fact the same ones that Lot and his family entertained. For Lot the visit was less of a blessing – since his neighbors were less than hospitable to the strangers, and that led to destruction (Gen. 19). As for Abraham and Sarah, the angels bore news of an impending birth, which would be a blessing to nations (Gen. 18:1-15).

There is a relationship between humility and hospitality. To be hospitable requires a certain degree of humility, a willingness to serve without any expectation of a return. Yes, it is true that the whole premise of hospitality in the ancient world was built upon reciprocity, but Jesus undermines that principle to a degree. He tells the listeners a parable, in which the one who invites to the party chooses to invite those who are unable to reciprocate – the poor, the lame, and the blind. Invite them without any expectation of repayment. In this you will find blessing.

The implications of these texts are many. They’re reminders of our call to attend to the needs of the stranger and the ones living on the margins – the widow, the orphan, the infirm, and the poor. Such people are not in the position of returning the favor. But, if we choose to live our lives in such a way that we lift up those who cannot lift themselves up, becoming a servant, we will be repaid in the resurrection. Then we shall be lifted up to sit at the right hand of the one who sits at the right hand of God. But in the meantime, there are still blessings that come from being circumspect and not presuming upon a host, but instead waiting to be invited forward. There are blessings as well that come from offering service to those who cannot repay. They may not be tangible, but they are there. May we be a blessing, even as we have been blessed.

Reposted from [D]mergent.org, a Disciples oriented blog, for whom I write a weekly lectionary reflection.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Death of Middle Judicatories and why that's not a good thing!

Since moving to Michigan I've become ever more deeply involved in the regional manifestation of my denomination.  I've long been active in local clergy and interfaith groups, leading and founding some of them.  But, by and large I've stayed out of the "bureaucracy," leaving that to others.  Part of this previous avoidance can be explained by my physical distance from the center of things.  I did, however, maintain a strong relationship with my regional minister, which proved helpful in difficult times.  But I can no longer avoid my responsibilities.  I may live no closer to the regional office than before, but in a smaller region, and as pastor of one of the regions stronger congregations (even though we're not that large) -- one which contributes an out-sized amount of funding and persons to the regional denominational life -- I now have responsibilities I previously avoided!  (I am now chair of the Ecumenism Commission -- a one person committee at this time -- and a member of Church Growth and Revitalization Commission.  Oh, and one half of the Transitional Regional Minister team is a member of my congregation.

I give you this information so as to set a context for introducing an important article entitled "The Death of the Middle Judicatory," by Dick Hamm.  Dick is the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a consultant with The Columbia Partnership.    Before becoming the GMP (how do you like that acronym) of the CC (DOC), Dick served as Regional Minister of the Tennessee Region.  Dick has been there and done that, and has learned a few things along the way about the role of the "middle judicatory" (an unfortunate term in my mind) for healthy congregations.  There was a day, not that long ago, maybe 25 years ago, when regions (the DOC term) had healthy budgets and healthy staffs.  I remember when I was ordained in 1985, the Christian Church in the Pacific Southwest had a regional minister and two full-time associates, plus support staff.  We had fully staffed committees and districts that met regularly.  That is no longer true there, and many regions, mine included struggle for survival.  Indeed, that's why many of them, mine included, are in a "transitional" mode.  We are looking at what can be done to save the regions, if they are meant to survive.  And that's the big question.  Many church folk, clergy and laity alike don't see the necessity (until they're in a crisis).  They don't see the relevancy (until they're at each other's throats).

That brings me to Dick's article.  He begins by pointing out the precipice that we're sitting on, and reminding us that healthy regions can be helpful to healthy congregations.  Unfortunately, staffs and resources have diminished so that regional staff spend much of their time putting out one fire after another (even in a small region).  There is little or no time for creative response or work, because you're spending 80 hours a week just bailing water.  And that's unfortunate, because like government, regions and denominations have important roles to play in the life of the local units.  Indeed, Dick provides a wonderful analogy:

Middle judicatories provide the connective tissue between congregations and their wider church family or denomination. Or, to use another biological image, middle judicatories are like the arteries and veins of denominations. When the flow in one of these vessels is partially blocked or cut-off, bad things happen both to the local and to the whole.
  The problem is that many middle judicatories are functioning as if this were still the 1950s or 1960s, using a hub and spokes model of relationship with congregations, with the Regional Minister/Bishop being the Hub.  Things are just too complex today, and there is much greater diversity than ever before, and so the old model is failing -- but are we ready to try a new model?  That is the question. 

Dick talks about three kinds of Middle Judicatories -- Heroes (the ones who devote 80 hours a week trying to make this thing work), Slaves (do whatever must be done), and Change Agents.  What we need are change agents, but too many judicatories (don't you hate that word/) are stuck in the other two modes of being (probably true of pastors as well).  

So, here is his definition of a change agent -- are we ready to embrace this kind of leadership?
The change agents are the ones who recognize that 1960 is gone and never coming back and who, in the midst of doing the necessary each day (though not everything that presents itself as urgent), are also working at bringing transformational change to the middle judicatory so that it can become an effective servant of the church once again. This is hard work, it takes time, and it demands some of the best leaders (just as the transformation of congregations demands some of the best leaders). As the old saying goes, when you are up to your hips in alligators, it is hard to remember that the original objective was to drain the swamp! To do so requires spiritual as well as emotional and professional discipline, it requires frequently getting up on the balcony to see the bigger picture.
We must pray that such leaders will come to the fore, not just to save the middle judicatory, but so that our congregations can live healthy, productive, missional lives!

To read the entire article, click here

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hospitality -- A Report from an Iftar Dinner

There is a problem in our midst.  The problem is that fear is running rampant and this fear is clouding our better judgment.  Our fear is causing us to stereotype Muslims, implicating all Muslims in the militant activities of a few.  The only real way of overcoming this problem is for non-Muslims in America to get to know Muslims.  Unfortunately, there aren't that many Muslims living in America, which makes it difficult to get to know Muslim people as people.  There are only about 2.5 million Muslims living in America -- about 1% of the population. 

A recent Time Magazine cover story highlights this problem.  Only about 37% of Americans have met or know a Muslim.  And if you don't know people, that leads to fear.  It also leads you to embrace stereotypes.  It also allows you to become susceptible to demagogues who use something like the Cordoba House/Park51 Islamic Center as a political tool.  The author of the Time article notes:

Islamophobia in the U.S. doesn't approach levels seen in other countries where Muslims are in a minority. But to be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith — not just in the schoolyard and the office but also outside your place of worship and in the public square, where some of the country's most powerful mainstream religious and political leaders unthinkingly (or worse, deliberately) conflate Islam with terrorism and savagery. In France and Britain, politicians from fringe parties say appalling things about Muslims, but there's no one in Europe of the stature of a former House Speaker who would, as Newt Gingrich did, equate Islam with Nazism. 
All of this leads me to my report on the Iftar Dinner held last night at the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit mosque and community center last night.  I along with others who are active in the local interfaith networks were present, invited to share in the breaking of the Ramadan fast.  We were treated to an informative program by the Imam, Aly Lela, that explained Ramadan and the fast, we broke the fast with dates and other fruits, observed the evening prayer, and then at about 8:45 had a wonderful dinner.  Now one of the things to note about the American Muslim community is that it is composed of people and cultures from around the world.  There are Arabs, Iranians, Afghanis, Bosnians, Albanians, Africans, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Bengalis, Indians, and more.  And so, when dinner is served it is always a representation of these various cultures.  And then of course, we ended with a variety of sweets.  

Hospitality is inherent in the Muslim faith tradition, especially during the time of Ramadan.  During Ramadan one is supposed to open one's house to share meals with one's neighbors.  We were welcomed with much grace.  I appreciate my friends Asad and Amin who gave me the gentle push during a busy week to join them.  It was a treat, not to miss.  If you're invited to dine with a local Islamic community, by all means join them.  The food will be wonderful and the fellowship even better.

How are we going to overcome the fear that pervades our society?  We must get to know our neighbors!  As a Christian, I have heard it said -- love your neighbor.  In fact, in case you believe that Muslims are the enemy, I think I've heard Jesus say something that is relevant:  

 43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 6:43-48).
As for me and my house, Muslims aren't the enemy.   The enemy is those who would try to create fear and profit from it.  Even they deserve love -- whether they are Muslim or Christian.   

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Good Enough Theology: Spirit-Centered Progressivism/Embracing Pentecost (Bruce Epperly)

We continue the journey into what Bruce Epperly calls a "Good Enough Theology."  Last week, Bruce looked at the contributions of the Quakers, especially their use of silence and waiting upon the movement of God, for guidance.  This week, Bruce goes in another direction and seeks insight from Pentecostalism, a movement that affirms God's empowering presence now, in this day.  Although it has its own set of problems -- I know of these first hand as a former Pentecostal -- it has also reintroduced into the mainstream of Christianity the experiential side of Christian faith.  It has also reminded us that God is still present and active.  Bruce believes that progressive Christians can profit from attending to the strengths of this movement.  I invite you to read and to share your thoughts.  Oh, and next week he turns to evangelicalism!


A Good Enough Theology:
Spirit-Centered Progressivism/Embracing Pentecost
Bruce Epperly

Good theology embraces the whole person - body, mind, spirit, relationships, and the planet. It is committed to growing in wisdom and stature through its interactions with the religious world, literature, secularity, and science. A balanced theological diet embraces the Pentecostal spirit as a catalyst for intellectual as well as experiential growth. (Next week, look for “one thing we can learn from fundamentalism.”)

Today’s Pentecostal Christians trace their beginnings to the day of Pentecost, described in Acts 2 and the spiritual adventures, described throughout Acts of the Apostles. Acts of the Apostles describes a lively and expanding faith, constantly being driven beyond its theological and cultural comfort zone and continuously open to experiencing signs and wonders.

While progressive and liberal Christians are often accused of expecting too little from God, Pentecostals have little humility when it comes to expecting God to show up in our daily lives. According to Pentecostal Christians, God regularly appears as a source of healing, inspiration, revelation, ecstasy, and mystical experience. The hallmark of Pentecostal faith can be found in these words from Acts 2:

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
And your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I shall pour out my Spirit;
And they shall prophesy.
Pentecostal Christianity is driven by the spirit to embody new possibilities as they are revealed to us. Faith embraces the non-rational as well as the rational, emotion as well as intellect. While there are Pentecostal excesses (for example, identification of prosperity as a sign of divine blessing; seeing speaking in tongues as God’s primary gift and judging as spiritually deficient persons who lack such gifts; and an over-emphasis on the supernatural as violating cause and effect relationships), Pentecostals follow where God leads: in contrast to fundamentalists, who follow a rigid understanding of scripture, Pentecostals ordained woman as pastors and spiritual leaders, because they believed that Spirit trumped scripture, and God’s Spirit called forth women to lead.

Acts 2 presents a dynamic, fluid church, making it up as they went along – integrating theology, spirit, social concern, and hospitality.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together…, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Pentecostals then and now have expected great things from God, and great things from themselves as mediators of God’s blessings. They have been leaders in reclaiming the healing ministry of the church as well as inviting people to be open to the unfettered movements of God’s spirit in dreams, ecstatic experiences, and spiritual discernment. Pentecostals balance the horizontal this-worldly orientation of progressives with their openness to the breaking in of the spirit. While progressives affirm that God works through the normal movements of cause and effect, nevertheless, progressives are invited to awaken to dramatic, yet naturalistic, movements of God’s spirit – to be open to signs and wonders within the everyday world. The natural world is always more, not less than we can imagine – what we describe as “miracles” may be quantum leaps of transformational energy, emerging in the divine-human all and response. A dynamic law-abiding universe is, in fact, a greater revelation of divine love and care than one in which God breaks in supernaturally and arbitrarily.

Pentecostal spirituality reminds us that God inspires us in many ways: through the mind and theological reflection, but also through dreams, intuitions, synchronous encounters, visionary experiences. Of course, as I Corinthians notes, each of these needs to be integrated with solid theological reflection, and this is where the gifts of progressive and process-oriented theology make a difference – progressive and process-oriented theology affirm that God is present, inspiring us in every aspect of our lives, but that divine inspiration is always contextual, always related to the good of the community, always aimed at wholeness and beauty. God seeks abundant life, but “prosperity” is not automatic, or solely the result of our faith in a linear fashion; the prosperity gospel is not individualistic, but embraces the whole earth. God wants all creation to flourish, not just the favored or faithful few.

Like the Quakers, Pentecostals invite us to see “more” and expect “more” from our world. They remind us that there is a “burning bush” on every pathway and that God is constantly speaking in our lives. Progressives can embrace this dynamic theology, balancing it with our sense of social justice and our vision of God’s universal revelation and care. The ever-present, still speaking God of progressive faith, calls us to see holiness in the ordinary and wonder in our daily tasks. Truly this makes for a good enough theological diet; a good enough theology to live by.

Bruce Epperly is a seminary professor and administrator at Lancaster Theological Seminary, pastor, theologian, and spiritual companion. He is the author of seventeen books, including  Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, a response to Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. His Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly, was selected 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy.  His most recent book is   From a Mustard Seed: Enlivening Worship and Music in the Small Church, written with Daryl Hollinger.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Muggles, Mudbloods, and Bigotry -- the Lessons of Harry Potter for Today

I've been on a role, as someone recently pointed out, being that I've been writing about anti-Islamic bigotry.  Now not all opposition to the building of the mosque in New York is an expression of bigotry, but there is a definite component to the debate that is full-blown bigotry.  Some of this, of course, is simply politics.  Just as Communists made for a good straw man during the cold war (though socialists seem to be making a comeback), now immigrants and Muslims seem to be a good target.  Several years ago I wrote a column for the Lompoc Record on this topic, using as my example the conversation about muggles and mudbloods that is present in the Harry Potter books and films (this is fresh in my mind because I watched Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on TV last night!). 

As you prepare to read this piece from 2007, I want to add in a quotation shared with me by my good friend and fellow pastor Glen Miles.  It's a quote from George Bush -- from 2002.  I've not been a big fan of the former president, but on this topic he is right on target.

"America rejects bigotry. We reject every act of hatred against people of Arab background or Muslim faith America values and welcomes peaceful people of all faiths -- Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and many others. Every faith is practiced and protected here, because we are one country. Every immigrant can be fully and equally American because we're one country. Race and color should not divide us, because America is one country."

President George W. Bush Promotes Compassionate Conservatism
Parkside Hall, San Jose, California
April 30, 2002


Faith in the Public Square
Lompoc Record
August 19, 2007

No one likes to think of themselves as bigots, but unfortunately bigotry remains a present challenge to our society. Discussions of immigration policy, national security, even marriage often contain veiled and not so veiled statements about “them.” “Them” is code for those we deem undesirable; those who would steal our jobs, pollute our culture, waste our tax payer dollars, or undermine our morality. Yes, bigotry remains a problem in our day.

I happen to be a big Harry Potter fan, having just finished reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” and as I read I couldn't help but hear the book's author speaking to this very issue that plagues our world today. Supposedly this is a series of children's books, but they are much more, for many adults have found not just hours of enjoyment, but deep meaning in this increasingly mature series of books. The books offer insight into such virtues as friendship, loyalty, being true to one's self, and the importance of standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.

J.K. Rowling seems to have understood the old adage that truth must be caught rather than taught, and therefore it's quite possible to read these books, especially the final volume, as a protest against the rising tide of bigotry in our world today.

In the case of Harry Potter's world, the bigotry comes from the wizarding world's “Purebloods,” and it's directed against “Muggles” (non-wizards) and “Muggle-borns” or “Mudbloods,” as radical “Purebloods” love to call them. “Mud-bloods” are wizards like Hermione Granger and Harry's mother, Lily, who're without any apparent “wizarding” ancestry. Their “powers” are therefore seen as somehow illegitimate - even stolen.

This bigotry among wizards might be traced to the fact that they must live in the shadows, something many resent. But it's also born of a sense of superiority, and as we all know - “might makes right.” Their desire to keep things pure leads some radicalized “Purebloods” to engage in a policy of oppression and even murder. And those “purebloods” who sympathize with these “lower beings” are seen as traitors - “blood-traitors” - who must be marginalized for their love of “Muggles” and “Mudbloods.” But even our heroes must learn something about bigotry, and it's the “Muggle-born” Hermione Granger who is their teacher. She helps her friends see other non-human beings - like the house-elves who are essentially slaves - as having dignity and honor in their own right.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should for this morality-play sheds light on our own histories and experiences. A fanatical concern for racial purity stood at the heart of the Nazi's Aryan ideology, but they're not alone in history. Consider our own American legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Trail of Tears, just to give a few examples.

Yes, this isn't just a series of fantasy stories meant for children (indeed this is a series of books that has matured with the original readers of the series). It is a word of wisdom that we can learn from as we deal with a world that's becoming increasingly diverse and yet increasingly intolerant. Indeed, it can be said that bigotry is on the rise everywhere in the world today. Here in America the traditional recipients of bigotry - African-Americans, Roman Catholics, Asians, and Jews - have been joined by Latinos, gays, Muslims, and immigrants of all stripes, but especially those who hail from Mexico and Central America.

It seems that we regularly read and hear laments about the threats to American security and culture from those who are different. Despite the fact - with the possible exception of Native Americans - that there is no such thing as a truly “blue-blooded American” - we all stem from immigrant stock - some believe themselves to be more American than others.

But such bigotry is never right and is often a pretext to discrimination and to violence. It is, in fact, repugnant to what's right and honorable and decent, and contrary to the teachings of my own faith tradition. Which is why, of course, we should heed Harry's message and stand up for what is right!

Dr. Bob Cornwall is pastor of First Christian Church of Lompoc.  He blogs at http://pastorobobcornwall.blogspot.com.

August 19, 2007

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Shaken to the Foundations -- A Sermon on Hebrews 12

Hebrews 12:18-29

I’m a survivor. Yes, I’ve survived several earthquakes, although none of them have been massive. The largest quake we ever experienced was the Northridge Quake in 1994, but it was centered miles away from our apartment in Rancho Cucamonga. That quake started with a jolt and then a rumble. The moment it struck I didn’t know its intensity or its epicenter, but I knew it wasn’t a train going by the complex. So I jumped out of bed, grabbed Brett, and headed for the door jam. The quake didn't last long, just a mater of seconds, but it rattled my nerves, and it was a while before we got back to sleep. We later learned that it was a 6.7 earthquake that, wreaked havoc on the Los Angeles basin. It led to the deaths of 17 people, injured scores more, and took down important freeway overpasses and numerous buildings in the San Fernando Valley. When I got to work at the library in Pasadena, which was much closer to the epicenter, I discovered I had a mess to clean up – including a number of collapsed bookshelves.

Quakes are funny, because the damage is often related to the ground upon which buildings are situated. Take for instance, the quake that hit my hometown of Klamath Falls in 1993, just days after we had left town after a vacation visit. Now, you need to understand that quakes are a rarity in Klamath Falls, so people aren’t as prepared for such an event as they might be in Los Angeles. This quake registered around 6.0 on the Richter scale, which is a pretty-good sized quake, and it destroyed several older brick buildings in the downtown area, including the venerable courthouse. Surprisingly, the oldest building in town, the unreinforced-brick Baldwin Hotel escaped without any damage at all. You see, unlike the other downtown buildings, which sat on reclaimed lake bed, the Baldwin was built on solid bedrock. That foundation wasn't going to move anywhere!

1. Wrestling with the Life’s Unexpected Events

Earthquakes are unpredictable, often coming when least expected. The extent of damage and death is often related to where and when a quake hits. If a quake hits out in the desert, it’s not going to cause much damage or death. But, if it hits at rush hour in a major city – as was true of the 1989 Bay Area quake -- then great harm can occur. Of course, if you live in an earthquake prone area, you’re more likely to take precautions – just in case. That’s why Chile had fewer problems after their quake than did the Haitians. Perhaps the spiritual life is much the same. You have to be ready for the big one,

The Foundations of the earth do shake.
Earth breaks to pieces,
Earth is split in pieces,
Earth reels like a drunken man,
Earth rocks like a hammock;
Under the weight of its transgression earth falls down
To rise no more! (Is. 24:18b-20 -- From Tillich's The Shaking of the Foundations, translation unknown)
The fragility of the earth reminds us of the fragility of our own lives. It’s easy to grow cold and callous about life, taking it for granted and become arrogant in our belief that we have the power to control our destinies. We do have choices in life, but as the prophets of old remind us, not everything is in our control. It often takes a devastating quake , tornado, war, flood or loss of a loved one to wake us up to the realities of life, to wake us up from our slumber, so that we might begin wrestling with the uncertainties of life. Too often we ignore the words of the prophets until the reality of their words hit home – that is, unless we’re prepared spiritually for the tests that come our way.

In the aftermath of World War II, theologian Paul Tillich preached a famous sermon entitled The Shaking of the Foundations. In it, he called on his audience to consider the devastating power humanity had recently unleashed on itself. He reminded the congregation that humanity now possessed the tools of its own destruction. But, even though science had given humanity the tools to shake heaven and earth, Tillich asked the question – is this our right? [Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, (New York: Charles Scribners, 1948), 2-3].

2. A Call to Prophetic Ministry

Nature’s power can be frightening, but so can the prospect of proclaiming the word of God. Prophets understand that their audience might not like what they have to say. They also face the possibility that they’ll be ignored. That’s why Jeremiah was less than eager to heed God’s call to be a prophet. Jeremiah told God that he was just a boy and therefore too young to take up such a calling. No one would listen to him, so why bother, and besides, even if people listened, prophets were rarely received well by the people. Now Jeremiah did accept the call, but he also got the treatment when his fellow citizens stuffed him in a cistern and had him carted off to Egypt. The thing God is, God can be persistent, and so God reminded Jeremiah that he had been created for this purpose. His vocation in life, from the moment of conception, was to deliver a word of judgment, and therefore, he needn’t be afraid. Yes, God told him: "Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jer. 1:4-10). Do you hear the contrast between the call to tear down and the call to build up? Both are placed in Jeremiah's hands. According to Hebrews 12, God called another prophet named Moses, and when Moses heard the voice of God he trembled with fear – largely because the voice of God shook the earth. As for us, the word of God comes in a different way – as Hebrews puts it:

"But you have drawn near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in a festival gathering, to the assembly of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than Abel’s blood" (Heb. 12:22-24 CEB)

We have received an invitation to enter the holy city, the dwelling place of God, to share in the heavenly worship with the gathered saints of God, having Jesus as our mediator and guide.

3. A Sifting of the Eternal

The Book of Hebrews reminds us that we should treasure that which is eternal – much as Jesus spoke of placing our treasure in heaven (Luke 12:22-34). As I think on what is important in life, what is lasting, what is eternal, my mind goes back to the Baldwin Hotel. I’m reminded that this old brick building survived, when the newer, better built, and more imposing courthouse didn’t. The difference between the structure that survived and the one that didn’t, wasn’t the quality of its construction, but the foundation upon which it was built. One was built on solid rock while the other was built on silt and mud.

The question raised by our text this morning concerns our response to the ways in which God shakes the foundations of our lives. What will survive, when God sifts our lives? What is built on solid rock? And what is built on shifting sands? Will we heed the prophets and embrace that which is eternal?

According to Paul Tillich, the prophets spoke with boldness because "their power sprang from the fact that they did not really speak of the foundations of the earth as such, but of Him Who laid the foundations and would shake them; and that they did not speak of the doom of the nations as such, but of Him Who brings doom for the sake of His eternal justice and salvation" (p. 9) As we face the difficulties of life, as our lives are shaken, in whom will we put our trust? Do we put our trust in our own abilities? In the government? In our families? Or, even in the church? Or do we put our trust in the God who laid the foundations of our lives?

There is only one thing that is unmovable and unchangeable, and we must build upon it. As Tillich puts it:
"When the earth grows old and wears out, when nations and cultures die, the Eternal changes the garments of His infinite being. He is the foundation on which all foundations are laid; and this foundation cannot be shaken. There is something immovable, unchangeable, unshakable, eternal, which becomes manifested in our passing and in the crumbling of our world" (p. 9)
 As we wrestle with this question, it’s important to recognize that the temporary often seems more attractive and enticing than the eternal. Fads come and go, but at the moment of their revealing, they seem so exciting. The eternal may not seem as glamorous or as hip, but when the temporary disappears, the eternal one remains standing. Quite often, the temporary collapses under its own weight, when the time of shaking begins. The question then is: how will we respond to the times when God sifts our lives? According to Tillich there are two choices: despair and faith ( p. 10). Which one will you choose? Putting our hopes in the temporary and the faddish, leads only to despair. But to put our hope in the eternal leads to a faith that will not disappoint. Faith comes, Tillich says, when we "see through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and salvation which has no end!" (p. 11).

When we stand on the rock, which is the God who created us, redeems us, and sustains us, we discover that when the shaking stops, like the Baldwin Hotel, nothing will have moved! If we choose to walk in faith, which means putting our trust in God’s grace, goodness, mercy, and love, then we will have built our lives on the bedrock of eternity. This is the message God wanted Jeremiah to proclaim to a people who had fallen for the trap of the temporary. They had put their faith in their own ability to overthrow the Babylonians, even though Jeremiah told them to put their trust in God, who is the mighty fortress and the bulwark that never fails. We come this morning, invited by our Lord, to place our lives at God's disposal through faith, so that when the sifting and the shaking occur, we will remain standing!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost
August 22, 2010