Monday, January 31, 2011

Church Mortgages and Foreclosure -- Sightings

The recent period of financial distress, which has led to increased unemployment and home-foreclosures.  People lost jobs and couldn't pay mortgages on homes, they probably couldn't afford in the first place, which led to an ongoing cycle of woe.  Well, it appears that churches have been caught up in the cycle -- many of these churches, both large and small, bit off more than they could chew and now can't pay the bills.  Is the end near?  We live by faith, but Jesus also reminds us that a builder will count the cost first.  We passed our budget yesterday, knowing that we'll have to tap our nest egg.  We're fortunate -- no mortgage and a nice cushion -- but for many this is not true.  Martin Marty speaks to this crisis in his own inimitable way!!


Sightings 1/31/2011

Church Mortgages and Foreclosures
-- Martin E. Marty

“Churches Find End Is Nigh” is the kind of headline which should produce ennui. One expects to read under it of the 1900th annual prediction of the end of the world. But, read on: the subhead portends an article on “Ends” which are current and real: “The Number of Religious Facilities Unable to Pay Their Mortgage is Surging.” A visit to Google will turn up scores of church foreclosure stories which deserve attention.

Attention is what churches get when their stories deal not with Incarnation, Trinity, Resurrection, or Atonement, but with Finances or Sex. Sightings notices what we call “public religion” or “religion-in-public,” often beyond the sanctuary. But in matters of money, the sanctuary and the public world meet. A Chicago Tribune article spoke of faith and the “mountain of bills,” as John Keilman circled and then zeroed in on the Lighthouse Community Church in Elgin, Illinois, which the Reverend Steve Robledo invented and now sees falling. The church “can’t afford to pay the $3,100 rent or fix maintenance problems” in the former Grace United Methodist Church which Rev. Robledo bought with two businessmen after he had a vision that God wanted him to start a church in it.

Keilman writes, “Reuters found that church foreclosures have tripled since the recession began in 2007.” In the Elgin story we learn that Robledo’s “nondenominational congregation is a fraction of its 200-member peak, diminished by the recession” and, no surprise, stressed as it is by “an internal schism.” A 200-peak? The megachurches could house such a gathering in a broom closet, were their finance people not busy scouring their own closets for overlooked funds as “a mountain of bills” piles up for them and, for some, “the end is nigh.”

All this is public because the public can understand mortgage foreclosures better than they can “get” Transubstantiation. Sneerers enjoy Schadenfreude, rejoicing in others’ misfortunes. Empathic humans, in churches or not, look deeper and find reason to mourn. Financial counselors at the big places run for cover after their counsel led congregations to overreach and under-support. Reformers use the moment to urge caution, reappraisal, more careful planning, and, in some cases, less hubris. Let’s admit it, folks, some of the mega-building is ego-driven and not only Spirit-inspired.

One reads of little Lighthouse buildings or Crystal Cathedrals, which share the experience of bankruptcy. Shelly Banjo reports in the Wall Street Journal that since 2008 about 200 religious facilities had been foreclosed, “up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before that.” As for the future, expert Jesse L. Jackson, Sr., of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, says “Churches are the next wave in this economic crisis.” PUSH signals work with African-American churches, many of which are over-committed, under-funded, and seeing that “the End is Nigh.”

Some of the problems are the result of Fate—the financial crisis—and others of Folly. But let’s grant the point that many are inspired by Faith, which is now being tested. In the Gospel of Luke (read 14:28-30, which is as current as the WSJ), Jesus warns of builders who do not “count the cost,” who fail, and get ridiculed. For some of the sign-carrying “End is Nigh” people, there is another admonition: “Repent: There Still is Time.” Maybe.


Shelly Banjo, “Churches Find End Is Nigh: The Number of Religious Facilities Unable to Pay Their Mortgage is Surging,” Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2011.

John Keilman, “In God he trusts, but pastor needs cash for church,” Chicago Tribune, January 23, 2011.

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

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

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy People? -- A Sermon on the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

This morning we begin a rather lengthy journey through one of the most powerful sections of Scripture. Although there will be a few breaks in this journey, we will focus our attention, between now and Palm Sunday, on the Sermon on the Mount. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls to himself a group of disciples from among the many who came to hear him proclaim the message of the kingdom and bring healing to the body and spirit, giving them a new identity and purpose. Now, Jesus draws to himself this small group so he can teach them what it means to live in God’s realm. As he takes them with him to the mountain, he teaches them that God’s realm is very different in tone and purpose from human realms and empires. It doesn’t matter if these worldly governments are limited or big, democratic or autocratic, they are not the same as God’s realm, and if they are to follow Jesus, then they must give their complete allegiance to God’s reign. And, as Warren Carter points out, if you’re going to live under God’s reign, you ’ll need new instructions and laws, which is what Jesus provides in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Carter writes

When God’s empire, God’s saving empire, comes among people, it claims their lives, disturbs the status quo, creates new priorities and identities, and gives new purpose, commissions people to new tasks, and creates a new alternative community that is going to need formational instruction as in the Sermon on the Mount. [Warren Carter, “Power and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,” Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines. David Fleer and Dave Bland, eds., (Chalice Press, 2007). Kindle Edition. Narrative Contexts.]

Christians have wrestled with how to respond to Jesus’ call for us to give total allegiance to God, even as we seek to live in this world. More often than not we either ignore the message of this sermon, or pick and choose what we like, because this vision is far too radical for most of us to handle. Consider the call to refrain from taking oaths or loving our enemies, what do we make of Jesus’ call to discipleship? What does it require of us?

As we take this journey, we need to understand that Jesus speaks these words to a community with the understanding that it is impossible to live out this call to discipleship outside the community. This is, therefore, not an ethic for individuals to try to live out on their own. There is simply no way for us as individuals to live in the way Jesus describes. That may be why, in Matthew’s presentation, Jesus doesn’t give the sermon to the crowd, but to those who have chosen to follow him. It is to this community that has chosen to follow Jesus that he gives the call to be light and salt in the world.

We begin our journey by attending to what we call the beatitudes – nine statements of blessing. Jesus says to the disciples, blessed or happy are those who are poor, grieve, are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who show mercy, have pure hearts, seek to make peace, are harassed because of righteousness, and are harassed and insulted because of their allegiance to Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas calls these gifts to the church. These are the blessings, the kinds of people who inhabit the community. He writes: “to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we are dependent on those who mourn or who are meek, though we may not possess that gift ourselves” [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Brazos, 2006), p. 63.]

This description seems so contrary to the way we tend to define blessings and happiness. Our culture would want us to believe that God blesses some people with success, those who apparently help themselves. Therefore, God helps teams win Super Bowls and National Championships. Of course, one may wonder why God seems to like the Yankees more than the Cubs, and the Packers more than the Lions. Does God really love the winners more than those whom society often considers losers? This idea that God wins games and fills bank accounts is based on a theology of success, but that theology seems very different from the one that Jesus espouses in the Beatitudes?


So what does it mean to be blessed or happy? Studies suggest that religious people are happier than nonreligious people. What is interesting is that this happiness doesn’t seem to be linked to one’s theology, but rather to the fact that religious people tend to be part of a caring community. Rachel Naomi Remen, a Jewish doctor and author of My Grandfather's Blessings, tells the story of a woman who confessed that she didn’t need to reach out to other people because she prayed every day. All she needed, she believed, was God. But, Dr. Remen responded: “prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another." [Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather's Blessings, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2000), p. 5]. In other words, blessings are relational, and that is because when we are in relationship with one another, we tap into the God who is present in the other person.

If happiness and blessedness are relational then perhaps we need to rethink what we mean when talk about our inalienable right to pursue happiness. We often read Thomas Jefferson’s words, as they are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in a very individualistic way. It’s all about my freedom to get whatever I need to make myself happy. That may be what the Declaration promises, but is the kind of happiness that Jesus desires for us to experience the kind of happiness that could come at the expense of my neighbor?

As we listen to Jesus’ description of God’s blessings, it becomes clear that God isn’t in the business of blessing the arrogant and the proud, the selfish and the self-sufficient. Instead God blesses the poor, the meek, the one who grieves and the one who makes peace, the harassed and the pure in heart. Happiness, therefore, really has nothing to do with living in the lap of luxury.

Rachel Remen knows something about finding happiness in the midst of suffering. For almost half a century she has suffered from Crone’s disease. But in the midst of her wounds, she says, that she encountered “life for the first time.” Her wounds became the source of wisdom and knowledge that enabled her to look at herself and see a “life that is both true and unexpected” (p. 25).

Wounds can either fester into bitterness and anger or bring us insight into what it means to live life and offer hope for the future. A cancer survivor sees the beauty of life and begins to enjoy it more. Spouses see a marriage hit a wall, but wake up to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place. A spouse dies and the surviving partner begins to die emotionally, only to find in the community new relationships that bring blessings to one’s life.

It’s important that we hear in this text one very important truth: As Jesus defines what it means to be blessed, he is not talking about earning this blessing. He’s not talking about voluntary poverty or seeking martyrdom, it is simply that the community is composed of people like the ones described, and we are blessed by their presence, for they are a gift of God. Even as God is present in their lives, they help bring sustenance and peace to the community.


The Beatitudes serve as the foundation of Jesus’ sermon. They help describe the community that will be salt and light to the world. To those whom God calls blessed belongs the kingdom of God – both in heaven and on earth. These are the marks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, of “the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW vol. 4, (Fortress, 2001), p. 109].

The community, as we will see in subsequent weeks, is a visible one. Those who hear this word of blessing are called to be salt and light to the world. Bonhoeffer points out that the ones whom the world deems “unworthy of living” are the “most indispensable commodity on earth. They are the salt of the earth” (pp.110-11).

Those who are blessed are in turn a blessing to the community and ultimately to the world. Although some of the beatitudes describe a state of being – poverty, humility, and grief, other beatitudes describe a life of action and service. You are blessed, Jesus says, so take these blessings and share them with others, be merciful, seek justice, and be a peacemaker. Again, we need to remember that Jesus gave these instructions not to the crowd or to individuals, but to the disciples. He did this to remind us that this active life of blessing is to be lived in community with an outward vision of ministry in the world.

It’s interesting that to each of the blessings is attached a reward. It’s not that we earn these blessings, but it is a reminder that even as we are called to minister from these blessings that are present in the community, blessings that enable us to love others, we must not lose sight of Jesus’ admonishment – that we love others as we love ourselves. There is therefore, a circular nature to the blessings that come to us.

Rachel Remen tells another story about a man who got a second chance in life. A successful stock broker who developed non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, he survived a horrible year of treatment that included chemo and a risky bone-marrow transplant, in large part because of the love he shared with his wife. But, having survived the cancer, he became convinced that he had to save the world. So, he quit his job and started working with the conservation movement. Before too long he was spending sixty hours a week on this new job, and he was gone so often that he no longer had time to spend with his wife and kids. When his neglected wife left him, Dr. Remen stepped in and told him that although he had been given a second chance in life, that life no longer was full of joy, but instead was just a burden. This reborn stock broker didn't think he had a choice, but his doctor reminded him that if he was going to serve others he had to take care of himself as well. Although he valued life, he failed to value his own life and that of those closest to him (Remen, pp. 20-21). Blessings go out and they return. You can work for justice and peace, you can pursue purity of heart, but unless you experience the blessings of community you will end up in despair - what they call burn out!

Micah says that God requires three things from us: justice, kindness and humility. The Law says, love God and love your neighbor and you will fulfill the entire law. That second commandment, though, has a second part to it: Love your neighbor, as you love yourself. There are blessings galore. There are enough to go around. Be blessed and be a blessing. Then as Jesus says: You will be a light to the world!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt -- Will Freedom Ring?

I've been watching the events unfolding in Egypt with a great deal of concern and hope.  Egypt has been a stalwart US ally and "friend of Israel."  This reality has led American American governments to turn a blind eye from the autocratic nature of this regime.  We've stood by allowing Hosni Mubarak to rule without many questions because of the fear of Islamist takeover.  Unfortunately, our willingness to abide secular autocrats has only further alienated the Arab populace and given Islamists the high ground. 

After the people of Tunis rose up and pushed out the dictatorial regime there, the populace in Egypt has risen up.  Mubarak has, so far, refused to give up power, though he has fired his cabinet.  Of course, this fools no one.  The problem isn't with the cabinet, but with the one who appoints the cabinet.  Mubarak also is 82 and wanting to pass on power to his son -- but the people and perhaps even the Army isn't happy with this idea.  And so the nation has revolted.  The Army has been called out, but there is a sense that the military is weighing its options. 

So what will happen?  The US seems sidelined -- supporting democracy but fearful of chaos in Egypt.  Israel has placed its bets on Mubarak and so is hoping for autocratic rule to continue.  Other Arab countries are also looking at what is happening in Egypt with great concern, because like Egypt these are states ruled by autocratic rulers who allow little freedom to the people.  And, like Egypt the vast majority of their own populace is under the age of 30, and restive.  Islamists have, in the past, exploited this restiveness, for they alone have carried the moral authority to oppose these leaders.  What is interesting in Tunis and in Egypt is that by and large this is not an Islamist driven revolt.  But, if there is a crackdown, it is likely that it will be the Islamists who are able to exploit it.

My hope is that Mubarak steps down and democratic steps are taken.  Egypt is a fairly modern country, that has some diversity -- Predominantly Muslim, but with a significant Christian (Coptic) minority.  I don't know where this will go, but I remain hopeful that freedom will ring for this nation.  Let us not support autocracy out of fear of Islamist take over.  Such fears only feed resentments toward the west.  If we stand for freedom, let us also support it in real ways that honor the aspirations of the Arab people for a better life.  What was it that Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence -- the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Making Friends, Making Disciples -- A Review

MAKING FRIENDS, MAKING DISCIPLES: Growing Your Church through Authentic Relationships. By Lee B. Spitzer. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2010. Xiv +161 pages.

The idea of “friendship evangelism” has been with us for as long as I can remember. It’s a pretty simple concept – people are more likely to come to church if they’re invited by their friends. Sometimes, however, this principle gets turned into a manipulative program. It’s a bit like multi-level marketing. You “make friends” with the goal in mind being growing the church. If the intended “friend” (victim) doesn’t look promising, well then you drop them in and move onto a more receptive “friend.” Although Making Friends, Making Disciples does speak to the question of growing churches through friendship circles, for the most part it doesn’t fall into this trap. The key part of the subtitle is the word "authentic."  In fact, the book takes a much broader look at the importance of friendship – not just in terms of the church, but our personal lives as well. And in this day of Facebook “friends,” it pushes us to look at this friendship circle as well.

The author of this book, Lee B. Spitzer, is the Executive Minister of American Baptist Churches of New Jersey. He has had significant experience as a pastor, but in his current position has had the opportunity to work across cultural and ethnic lines, experiences that provide helpful impact to the book’s perspective. Theologically, the author would seem to come from a moderately evangelical perspective. This became evident near the end of the book when the author spoke of developing interfaith friendships, something he supports, but with two caveats – such friendships should not override the exclusivist elements of the gospel, and that it is likely problematic to bring persons of another faith into one’s closest friendship circles (Best Friends and Special Friends – that would, of course, exclude persons of another faith being one’s spouse/partner). The author’s orientation is seen also in the way the Bible is used – never heavy handed, but always present in the discussion.

Although the book has an evangelical flavor, it is not a heavy-handed one. Therefore, one need not be evangelical to find value in Making Friends, Making Disciples. The value of this book can be found not just in the insights it gives concerning drawing people into the church and sustaining relationships in the church – though that is very helpful – but one will find great assistance in examining the nature of one’s own friendships. The Appendix includes several exercises that will help the reader (and groups in the church) look at their friendship circles, which he defines as Best friends – those who are most trusted – including one’s spouse (2-3 persons); Special friends (3-5 closest friends beyond the inner circle); Social friends (7-12 persons one spends considerable time with). Finally, there are the casual friends/acquaintances – another 50-200 persons one knows by name and might either socialize with or work with. The question then becomes: how many in each circle are church friends, recognizing that if all one’s friends are church friends, the opportunity to draw in others to the faith is rather limited.

Regarding the church and friendship, the author, Spitzer notes the importance or relationships in creating a healthy church – noting that visitors can discern whether a church is for them in the first 10 minutes. With that in mind, he speaks to the kinds of things that can keep a church from being a welcoming congregation – including the way the sanctuary is set up to the reliance on meetings to sustain relationships. So, there is encouragement to “right-sizing” the sanctuary seating to having regular fellowship meals, from creation of small groups that not only meet to do business but that have strong theological foundations. I did appreciate as well the word concerning same gender relationships, which have become much more prominent. He welcomes them but notes that they need to be kept in perspective. But in relationship to the church, he notes that the days of same gender groupings maybe coming to an end, as younger people are much more comfortable gathering in cross-gender groups than same-gender groups.

A bit of wisdom that the author provides is a reminder that true friendship has to be future oriented. It has to be moving forward. In illustrating this premise, he points to the Facebook phenomenon of reconnecting with old friends from the past – usually from high school or college. Reconnecting is joyful and fun, but ultimately, after we share our memories of the good old days of yore, unless this friendship has forward movement the relationship starts to fizzle. I think all of us who have been on Facebook realize this to be true. Of course, something different can happen through social media – we can make connections with people we’ve never met, but who share common interests and commitments. This can and does at points lead to deeper friendships over time, especially if we have the opportunity to connect face-to-face at some point.

This is a book that will prove to be a quick read, provide needed wisdom for church and personal life, and yes, might even lead to growth of the church – not only in numbers but also in spirit.  I know that we always add the latter phrase, but it is important, and too often only given lip-service! 

Good Sufi, Bad Muslim -- Sightings

In Thursday's edition of Sightings, University of North Carolina Religious Studies professor Omid Safi takes on the issue of dividing Muslims between good and bad.  In this case, pointing to comments made in support of the Parc 51 project by politicians, including former governor David Paterson, who suggested that this project was okay because it was sponsored by mystical (pietistic) Sufi Muslims, who aren't a threat.  Of course the flip side of this compliment is that Sufi Muslims -- unlike Shiite Muslims are okay, but other Muslims, perhaps most Muslims are dangerous.  Safi also takes a look at the call for supposedly "moderate Muslims" to speak out, but who are they?  Are they, in fact, Muslims who stand with the American empire?  It is an important look at the continuing effort to demonize the majority of the world's Muslims. 

I think it is a piece worth looking at, even as we watch forces of change erupting first in Tunisia and now in Egypt.  What will come of all this?  Who are the good Muslims now?  The secularist Mubarak or his opponents? 

Take a read:


Sightings 1/27/2011

Good Sufi, Bad Muslims
- Omid Safi

One of the lower points in the Park51 Center controversy was the comment by New York Governor David Paterson: “This group who has put this mosque together, they are known as the Sufi Muslims. This is not like the Shiites…They’re almost like a hybrid, almost westernized. They are not really what I would classify in the sort of mainland Muslim practice.”

In a few short sentences, the governor managed to offend Sufis, Shi’i Muslims, as well as westernized Muslims, non-westernized Muslims, and “mainland Muslims” (whoever they are). Paterson overlooked the fact that some Shi’i Muslims are mystically inclined, and that six million American citizens are Muslims, thus there is no question of “westernizing” or “almost westernizing” for them. There is a more disturbing implication hiding in his assertion: the ongoing way in which the general demonization of Muslims, of the kind now routine on Fox News, is accompanied by an equally pernicious game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims.

There are many versions of this game, but the basic contour stays the same: The assertion that the general masses of Muslims are evil, terrorist-supporters, anti-western, patriarchal, misogynist, undemocratic, and anti-Semitic; and that these masses are set off and defined against either the solitary, lone Muslim good woman or man. The “Good Muslim” is often an individual, or a small circle, because to admit that the larger group of Muslims could be on the right side of the human-rights divide is to have the house of cards of the Muslim demonization game collapse on itself.

There are endless scenarios of this fictitious bifurcation: Reading Lolita In Tehran is “Good Muslim,” unspoken, nameless, faceless masses of Muslims are patriarchal, bad Muslims. Irshad Manji is an Israel-loving “good Muslim” who suggests that Muslims could be blamed for the holocaust, while the majority of Muslims are bad Muslims. Salman Rushdie and Orhan Pamuk are “good” secular or ex-Muslims, defined against the masses of Muslims. It is worth noting how easily and how frequently the “good Muslim” solitary figure ends up being prominently featured on the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

Sarah Palin famously addressed “Peace-seeking Muslims” on Twitter: “pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing.” In her inarticulate bifurcation, supporters of Park51 were defined as being outside the “peace-seeking” Muslim category.

The latest version of this bifurcation game of Good Muslim, Bad Muslims is that of pitting Muslim mystics (Sufis) as the “good Muslims” against the majority of Muslims cast as villains. Sufi tradition offers incredible reservoirs for mercy, love, and pluralism. Yet it is inaccurate, and politically appropriative, to present Sufism as disconnected from politics or wider social concerns at best, and as agents of the Empire at worst.

This type of a presentation was prominent in the discussion about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the visionary American Muslim leader behind Park51. Time and again in the presentation of Imam Feisal and his wife Daisy Khan, we were reminded by the New York Times that they represented Sufi Islam, a gentle kind of Islam, nothing like the scary monster of political Islam: “He [Abdul Rauf] was asked to lead a Sufi mosque.” Daisy Khan is described as “looking for a gentler Islam than the politicized version she rejected after Iran's revolution.” Another New York Times article was even more explicit in marking the couple as worthy “good Muslims”: “They founded a Sufi organization advocating melding Islamic observance with women's rights and modernity.”

The suggestion that Sufi teachings are somehow immune to politics, that Sufis have been unconcerned with social issues and questions of justice and politics are problematic. Historically speaking, Sufis have been fully engaged in both challenging political powers and alternately legitimizing political power throughout their history. Prominent Sufis like Abu Sa’id Abi ‘l-Khayr’s legacy has been used in legitimizing political powers, and Sufis such as ‘Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani and Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri have spoken truth to power. In both cases, Sufis have not remained aloof from politics.

The Park51 controversy exposes many underlying assumptions about religion in the public space and politics, particularly in the case of Muslims, who are given two options in this superficial bifurcation game: to be politically destructive in the manner of terrorists or “Islamists”, or to be politically quietist, acquiescing in the face of power. In this “Good Sufi/Bad Muslims” dichotomy, Sufis are asked to line up in the politically quietist camp, so that they can be validated.

This dichotomy ignores a third group of Muslims: Those who, whether mystically inclined or not, want to neither destroy the world nor acquiesce to the wishes of the Empire, but rather seek to redeem the world by speaking truth to power. This group speaks out of the love of God and cries out for the suffering of humanity, defiantly and prophetically standing up for justice and liberation,

And here is where the canard of “Moderate Muslims” comes to play: Ever since 9/11, we have been asked time and again where the “moderate Muslims” are, and why they are silent. No matter how often, and how loudly, Muslim organizations and individuals condemn terrorism, the likes of Thomas Friedman can still famously, and inaccurately, state: “The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks… To this day--to this day--no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.” No presentation of factual data seems to persuade these critics that Muslims did, do, and will continue to speak out loudly and officially against terrorism. The reason their critics do not hear the moderate Muslims is because they are not listening.

Moving beyond the question of Muslims condemning terrorism, there is the larger question of what exactly makes someone a “moderate” Muslim? In its current usage, the term “moderate Muslim” is as meaningful as a purple polka dot unicorn. If the term moderate implies a balancing point between two extremes, it is a hopelessly vague term in the post-9/11 landscape. If one of the two extremes away from the “moderate Muslims” is easy to imagine (terrorism, Bin Laden, etc.), the other extreme is ill-defined. What are moderate Muslims moderating? If one extreme is terrorism, then what is the other extreme?

“Moderate Muslims” are often defined, and confined, to be supporters of US foreign policy, vis-à-vis some important issues, such as supporting US global military presence, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian-Israeli issue. To dare suggest that the United States is today the world’s only military Empire with hundreds of military bases in other countries, or that we have in fact become the Military-Industrial Complex that Eisenhower warned us about, or heaven forbid, that the Palestinians suffer from decades-long, unbearable occupation and violations of human rights, is to define one outside the safe (and lucrative) safe-zone of “moderate Muslim.” Sadly, even the safe-zone is not so safe. Imam Feisal has been sent on political missions abroad by the State Department, yet even he was not safe from being branded by Fox News as a terrorist sympathizer.

If our public discourse about religion and politics is to evolve to a more subtle, and accurate, space, it must get to the point where religious voices that speak from the depths and heights of all spiritual traditions can do more than simply acquiesce in the face of the Empire. They can, and should, speak for the weak, and give voice to the voiceless.


Fatemeh Keshavarz, Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005).

Omid Safi, The Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

CBS New York, “Paterson: ‘Mosque Developers Hybrid, Almost Westernized’ Muslims,” August 26, 2010.

Sarah Palin, “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing,” Twitter, July 18, 2010.

Michael M. Grynbaum, “Daisy Khan, An Eloquent Face of Islam,” The New York Times, November 12, 2010.

Thomas L. Friedman, “If It’s a Muslim Problem, It Needs a Muslim Solution,” The New York Times, July 8, 2005.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Military-Industrial Complex,” 1961 speech.

Islamic Statements Against Terrorism, compiled by Charles Kurzman, University of North Carolina.

Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He served as the Chair of the Study of Islam Section at the American Academy of Religion from 2002-2009. He is the author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (HarperOne, 2009).


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

Thursday, January 27, 2011

A Pastoral Letter on Bullying -- Sharon Watkins

I decided to share this important word to the Disciples of Christ community on the subject of bullying.  It comes in the form of a Pastoral Letter from the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins.  I believe it is a word we need to hear, whether we're Disciples or not.


“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”   - I John 3:17-18

Dear Disciples,

The wave of publicity has passed regarding bullying and suicide, but the problem has not gone away. In this New Year, families and friends of those who died are feeling the loss deeply.

In my own community, two young people died last year by suicide as a result of bullying at school. These are two we know about – there may be others. Bullying involves a repeated pattern of aggressive, unwanted, negative actions and an imbalance of power. It can take place wherever people gather…. at school, church, or in the workplace.

Many whose deaths brought this issue to public attention were gay; bullied because of their sexual orientation until they thought life wasn’t worth living. Other young people are bullied because they don’t speak English well, they are from a minority or because they are smart. Sometimes it’s adults that get involved in their children’s issues and bully, anonymously via social media. Sometimes bullying is part of hazing.

Bullying is always wrong and followers of Christ should say so.

Christians who call ourselves Disciples of Christ are called to speak ‘love in truth and action” by standing up for all God’s children – especially those who attract the attention of bullies, whether they are gay or immigrants or just unpopular. Let’s be sure these children of God know they are not alone – that life is worth living.

US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and US Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan say the most promising anti-bullying approaches are those that “get entire communities involved. When principals, teachers, school nurses, pediatricians, social workers, faith leaders, law enforcement agents, and parents all have the information they need to recognize bullying and respond to it, bullies get a clear message that their behavior is unacceptable.”1 Disciples pastor, Glenn Wilkerson adds, “Most bullies ‘play the crowd,’ and if the crowd has the courage and compassion to say, ‘Stop that!’ ‘That’s not funny!’ ‘That’s cruel!’ we’ll put an end to the bulk of it.”2

Unfortunately, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll, two thirds of Americans believe that messages coming from churches contribute to the suicide of gay teens.3 We need to convey a different message. We are Disciples of Christ, of Jesus Christ. He welcomed children, ate with tax collectors and chatted with women – shocking in his time. But Jesus came to show that God loved the world (John 3:16) – the whole world.

We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness. Our mission is to be and to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. We extend God’s wholeness by reaching out in word and deed to the bully and the bullied alike, showing God’s love.

As Christian people, let’s be clear that bullying is not ok. In your community, let’s be sure people know that Disciples of Christ “love in truth and action.” Let’s not have families mourning the loss of promising young people to tragic death. Instead, let’s help all God’s children know they are loved and valued!

Sharon E. Watkins

General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

1.  Kathleen Sebelius and Arne Duncan. Houston Chronicle / San Diego Union Tribune / St. Paul Pioneer Press, October 9, 2010

2. The Reverend Glenn Wilkerson, founder and President of ARK (Adults Relating to Kids) October edition of the online ARK Newsletter.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011

What DOES God Want? Lectionary Meditations

Micah 6:1-8

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

What DOES God Want?

What is it that God wants from us? Is it our money? Our obeisance? Our unwavering belief in the Bible, without having any doubts whatsoever? Is it esoteric knowledge or hidden wisdom? Down through the centuries we have asked the question – what does God want? In the course of time, we’ve also been given lots of answers, some of which are conflicting and some to the minds of many, especially in this modern age, purely nonsensical. Consider the practice of child sacrifice – what kind of God would demand child sacrifice? (Oh, I may need to be careful with this one!) What of temple prostitution? Is God some kind of voyeur who needs to get sexually aroused to give us children or bless our fields? I realize that the Law offers strict guidelines as to which sacrifices should be offered, when they should be offered, and in what manner they should be offered, but the prophets all seem to be of one mind even though religious ritual and offerings of grain and oil and even the fatted calf might have their place, what really matters is that we act with justice, mercy, and loving kindness. Yes, God is less interested in our religious rites and more concerned with how we treat one another.

The three texts that stand before us this week, all of which in one way or another are well known to Christians, seeks to answer the question: What is it that God wants from us. Micah 6:8 is, of course, a favorite of the social justice crowd, while 1 Corinthians 1:18 would seem to speak to those who have put the atonement high on their list of important doctrines. As for the Beatitudes – shall we spiritualize them or should we understand that the poverty and the meekness, the persecution and grieving is all too real?

We begin this reflection with the reading from the Hebrew Bible. Its closing verse is well known to many Christians for it answers quite directly the question – what does God want? There in seemingly bold print, Micah 6:8 declares that God wants justice, mercy, kindness, and humility. But while this passage speaks powerfully to us, we need to hear it in context.

The prophet begins this chapter with a listing of God’s charges against Israel. God tells the people to plead their case before the mountains and the hills. Yes, God has a beef with you them. God says to the people with whom he’s in this dispute – How have I wearied you? What have I done to you that you respond this way? Don’t you remember that I brought you out of Egyptian slavery? Don’t you remember that when things were difficult I sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to you? (I need to point out here the inclusion of Miriam). Remember how Balaam undermined Balaak of Moab’s plans against you? Do you remember? So, why are you not following my precepts?

The people respond – with what shall I come before you? Do you want burnt offerings? Do you want an offering of fatted calves? What about 1000 rams or 10,000 rivers of oil? Indeed, will an offering of my first born – the “fruit of my body for the sin of my soul” -- suffice to turn your anger from me? In other words, what religious rituals do you demand?

The response from God cuts in a very different direction – religious rituals and sacrificial offerings are irrelevant. Here is what the Lord wants from you – “to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” This is all God asks – love your neighbor and you will show your love for God. And with this call I’m reminded of Tom Oord’s definition of love:

“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God, to promote overall well-being.” (The Nature of Love, p. 17).

What does God want from us? God wants us to be committed to promoting the overall well-being of the Creation.

In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul continues the conversation about what it is that God desires from us, though the language changes somewhat. Here the target isn’t religious ritual, but worldly wisdom. Paul speaks on behalf of God: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor. 1:19). This is a passage that some, including me, will struggle with, for it seems to suggest that the Christian faith is anti-intellectual. That is, however, not what Paul would want us to hear (I don’t think – hopefully). Instead, he suggests that what the world considers foolish – the cross – God considers wise. He notes that while the Jews want signs and the Greeks wisdom, all Christians have to proclaim is the cross, which is a stumbling block to one group and foolishness to another. And yet, to those who wish to have their lives transformed, the message of the Cross is full of the power of God’s wisdom. You may not be powerful, you may not be strong, you may not be of high estate, but that need not be a problem, for God’s wisdom, strength, and stature is sufficient for righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. So, if you must boast, boast in the one who was crucified – the one who experienced complete powerlessness, and yet in this reveals the righteousness of God.

Finally we come to the Beatitudes, and return to the mountain. Jesus is depicted here in this moment as the new law-giver, the new Moses, the one who brings God’s directives to humanity. In Micah, the people are commanded to make their defense to the mountains, and here the mountains bear witness to God’s new word. Actually it’s not a new word, but a reaffirmation and reapplying of God’s longstanding commitment to the well-being of the creation. Now, we can, if we wish, spiritualize these first statements of blessings into the “Be Happy Attitudes,” but to turn these into expressions of positive confession would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to turn these blessings into requirements – so that we must earn God’s blessings by experiencing poverty and grief, persecution and humiliation. It is not something that we pursue, as if we’re seeking after martyrdom, but it is a description of reality in the world. As God engages this world, Jesus promises us that God has chosen to bless those whom society relegates to the sidelines (at best).

The blessings that Matthew presents are the gifts of God bestowed on those who are not rich and powerful in this life. It is a statement that in contrast to the way the world usually works; God isn’t inclined to bless the strong and the powerful, the acquisitive and the violent. But instead, God reaches out to bless the poor and the meek, those who mourn and those hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, pure in heart and those who seek to be peacemakers, those who are persecuted – whether for righteousness or for the sake of the Christ. And the blessings are all wrapped up in experiencing firsthand the realm of God. The phrase in Matthew is Kingdom of Heaven, but we make a mistake if we assume that these blessings of the Kingdom are reserved for some other life, beyond this one. Consider the promise that the meek “will inherit the earth.” And if we understand the prayer Jesus taught the disciples, God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven – there is therefore no bifurcation between the two. To follow Jesus is not an opiate, but a call to live out the new law of love that Jesus is revealing from the mountain of God. But remember, walking humbly with God means that suffering may likely continue. There may be blessing and happiness, but it is to be found in the midst of this life, with its suffering, even as we work to transform the world in which we find ourselves? For as Jesus says, if you’re persecuted, remember that you stand in a long line of those who have experienced persecution, a line that takes you back to the prophets of old. .

So what DOES God want? God wants us to remember that we live in a world that is filled with suffering and injustice and unhappiness, and God wishes us to devote our lives to transforming this reality. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who has thought deeply about the relationship of the Buddha and Jesus points out that both the Buddha and Jesus understood that life involved suffering, and that both sought to provide a way out of it. He writes:

We too must learn to live in ways that reduce the world’s suffering. Suffering is always there, around us and inside us, and we have to find ways that alleviate the suffering and transform it into well-being and peace. (Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, 1995, pp. 48-49).

In this we will find blessings, for that is the promise of God, who has been revealed to us in the crucified one – Jesus the Christ.

A Nation Enters the Inventive Age

As I was watching the President speak last night, I couldn't hep but think of Doug Pagitt's new book Church in the Inventive Age.  Like Doug, the President pounded home his conviction that the world has changed and we need to adapt to it.  The road ahead may be difficult to navigate, but America's history shows that we have what it takes.   The key words from last night's speech are EDUCATE and INNOVATE.  This is because the jobs of tomorrow, unlike the jobs of yesterday require education, and the only way we can compete with China and India is if we educate and innovate.  The President noted that in proportional numbers, the US has fallen to 9th in college graduates.  In terms of Internet access we're well behind a number of other countries.  There is the severe problem that 25% of HS seniors fail to graduate from HS at a time when it is next to impossible to get a job without a HS diploma at the very least. 

Now as I listened to the President last night I heard a sober analysis and a centrist solution.  He said enough to make the partisans left and right upset.  But, what I heard last night was a President who gets it.  He's not the Prime Minister, who represents a Party, he's the President who represents a nation.  He gave the the GOP a few bones, and said okay, now since we have divided government lets see what we can do to solve problems in a centrist mode.  I'll come part way, but you have to come part way.

I heard this strongly stated in the brief but important word about Health Care.  He said, you know, if there are areas that don't work, let's fix them.  But let's not redo the legislation so that a person with a pre-existing condition can't get health care coverage, let's not take away the opportunity for families to cover their children as they enter the work force or continue their education.  But, he made clear he would not let us slip backwards.

While the pundits were poking holes (along with some of my progressive friends), my sense is that the American people liked what they heard.  And, while Paul Ryan may have made a nice defense of small government in his response, is this really what the American people want? 

What the American people want is a strong, efficient, effective government that solves problems and protects us from threats both external and internal, that delivers services on time and keeps the roads fixed.

My story for a moment.  I'm driving down Long Lake Road, a major thoroughfare here in Troy (in what was once a rather affluent city), and I'm amazed at all the potholes.  And it's only getting worse.  Is this the America we really want to live in?  Yes, the deficit is a problem, but maybe we need to be willing to pay a bit more money for things.  Maybe here in Michigan we could pay 10 cents a gallon more so we could have good and safe roads and bridges.
So, did I like the speech last night.  Yes, I thought he did what he needed to do to reframe the debate and get us moving forward.  I think he also put himself on the right path to getting re-elected, and if he does well enough Democratic senators in states leaning right might do well as well.

So, let's go out and innovate and educate! (Oh, but one thing Mr. President, while I agree we need math and science teachers, let's not forget the humanities.  One of the big problems today is people don't know their history!) 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Pseudonymity and the Bible (Excerpt from Ephesians Study Guide)

Many modern readers find the idea of pseudonymity to be problematic. The idea of a nom de plum is a well understood practice, but writing in the name of a famous person seems unseemly, even fraudulent. The very first syllable is off putting, for “pseudo” means, for us, falsity. Indeed, for me to write a book under the name of a famous theologian, such as Karl Barth, would lead to charges of producing a forgery. How can we accept this text as offering words of truth if it emerges from a false identity. Modern western squeamishness with pseudonymity isn’t something that is shared by every culture, including many cultures living in the early centuries of the Christian era.

It was common practice and considered perfectly acceptable to write a book in the name of another person. Solomon, for example, is the attributed author of most of the Proverbs, while many of the Psalms are attributed to David. There is also a book attributed to Daniel —who may or may not have been a historical figure — that was written several centuries after the era described. Then we have the various authors whose work comprises the book of Isaiah. Within the New Testament, we know that the gospels were written anonymously, with authorship attributed to the books by later tradition —probably in the second century. At least one, if not both, of the Petrine letters are pseudonymous, as is true of Jude.

Among the letters attributed to Paul, the only undisputed letters are those addressed to the Romans, the two Corinthian epistles, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. There is also a whole range of pseudonymous literature that stands outside the biblical canon, but like the canonical texts the reason for writing under the name of a famous person is that the name carried with it a certain sense of authority. As for the letters written in the name of Paul, most scholars believe that the authors represent a theological school of thought that is linked to the person named.  Thus, the author of the Ephesian letter is seeking to represent to a second generation church the tradition of Paul’s theology.  One of the questions that lies behind the debate over authorship is the identity of Paul. Especially in regard to issues relating to women and to slavery, the Ephesian letter, along with Colossians and the three pastoral letters, seem to have a more rigid or conservative sense to them. This more culturally rigid position seems to stand in contrast to what one finds in the Galatian letter or even the Corinthian letters. By removing Paul from authorship of these discomforting texts, Paul begins to look more progressive (see the arguments in Borg and Crossan The First Paul, 29-58).

  • Because there is debate as to the identity of the author of this letter, with many scholars suggesting that the letter was written after Paul’s death in Paul’s name by an associate of Paul’s, how do you feel about the idea of pseudonymity? If this letter is pseudonymous, does that knowledge change how you read and use the letter? Would knowing that it was common practice to write under a pseudonym affect the way you read the text?

Excerpts from Ephesians: A Participatory Study Guide (Energion Publications, 2010).  For more information about the book see the publisher's page

Monday, January 24, 2011

Living within the Reign of God: A Sermon Series on the Sermon on the Mount

The “Sermon on the Mount” is the best known and perhaps most challenging speeches/sermons from the Gospels. It’s not a mere compilation of sayings attributed to Jesus, but in the hands of Matthew it becomes a tightly organized and powerful speech that lays out for us Jesus’ vision of what life in God’s Realm should like. It is a rather radical, even revolutionary vision that challenges the way we live our lives in this world. It calls on us to examine our allegiances, and asks us whether we’re willing to live for God or for some other claimant – including our nation. It is to be noted that standing at the center of this sermon is the Lord’s Prayer, which serves as a pledge of allegiance to God and the cause of God’s reign. In the course of Jesus’ sermon, he touches on our calling to be salt and light, reworks the nature of the Law, refocuses our worship, and calls on us to live lives of loving kindness. It closes with warnings of judgment and a call to build our lives of faith on strong foundations.

Although this sermon series begins with Matthew 5:1, the setting for the sermons begins in Matthew 4:23 and continues through 4:25:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.  (Mt. 4:23-25 NRSV).

Having ministered among the people of Galilee and with people coming from as far away as Jerusalem in the south and Syria to the north, Jesus gathers the people together on the mountain top (in Luke it is on a plain), and shares his message of what God’s kingdom looks like.

In the course of nine sermons that will take us up to Palm Sunday, we will explore this important statement of what is often called the “Kingdom Ethic.” The question is – are we meant to live it now, or must we await a different age when we no longer face the challenges and temptations of this life? That is, should we simply admire the idea, but leave it aside as being unrealistic for the present day? Or, should we model our lives upon its statement?

  • January 30         Happy People?                          Matthew 5:1-12
  • February 6         Light Bearing Faith                    Matthew 5:13-20
  • February 13       Law and Order                          Matthew 5:21-37
  • February 27      The Law of Love                        Matthew 5:38-48
  • March 13          Putting on a Show                      Matthew 6:1-18
  • March 20          What Should I Desire Most?       Matthew 6:19-31
  • March 27          Judge not, lest Ye . . .                 Matthew 7:1-14
  • April 3              Judgment Day                            Matthew 7:15-2
  • April 10            Laying Strong Foundations         Matthew 7:24-29

“The faith-community of the blessed is the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything. Now the word comes down from the cross: blessed, blessed.” [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship. DBW Vol. 4. (Fortress Press, 2001), p. 109].

Sermon series to be shared with the congregation of
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, MI

Memphis Church Preservation -- Sighings

As a historian I hate to see the loss of historic buildings, because they offer insight into periods of time (though there are periods of architectural style that might benefit from being forgotten -- i.e. the 1970s).  As a pastor I recognize the importance of making sure that scarce dollars go to ministry and not preserving aesthetics, for the sake of preserving them.  In recent years churches have gotten caught in a bind as they no longer have the funds to keep up properties, but are prevented from demolishing them or selling them because of historic landmark status or community heritage groups.  So, what to do?  Martin Marty helps us wrestle with the problem in today's issue of Sightings


Sightings 1/24/2011

Memphis Church Preservation
- Martin E. Marty

This season it’s Memphis. Last season it was in some city near you. Next season it will be a challenge in your city, or, if you “have” one, in your denomination. “It” refers to what in my eyes is one of the sad insolubles on the “public religion” front. Making sense of these “its” and “insolubles” elicits a story. This time it is in the Wall Street Journal, where Timothy W. Martin tells of conflict over a church building that, in the eyes of its last few surviving members, cannot survive, and Memphis Heritage, an organization which seeks to prevent destruction of historic and aesthetic properties.

In this case, Union Avenue Methodist Church is featured. The roof and walls of the building are falling and failing. Only forty church members are left in this congregation after most Union Avenue members moved to the suburbs decades ago, and they cannot begin to fund restoration and preservation, to say nothing of other needs which make strong demands on them and their church's mission. To the rescue came CVS Caremark Corporation, which is paying, or ready to pay, good money to raze the building and put the space to new CVS purposes. Memphis Heritage stepped in to prevent the changes, but now tempers, legal fees, and civic controversy rise. No surprise there.

What to do? From this distance, neither church, corporation, nor preservationists are natural villains. They are all caught between forces they cannot control. The building does not display aesthetic merit—pardon me, good Union Avenue folk—with its boxy look and plastered-on flat pillars. But removing it would disrupt preservation efforts for those who are working to restore the neighborhood. Can the locals profit from the experience which has analogues in countless urban (and sometimes rural) settings? We have known and cheered groups like Inspired Partnerships in Chicago, and Partners for Sacred Places nationally, and we have seen them put energy into addressing the issue.

From where might funds come? Weekly you will read of debates as to whether tax money can be used. Mention that and you get into church-state issues and citizen concern over taxes for anything. What about the host denomination? Not much luck: if it is doing any fair part of its mission, it’s broke. What about non-denominations? Too dispersed, not focused, not obligated, distracted by their own legitimate agendas. Former members? They are long gone over the hills of Tennessee to greener pastures for church life. Present members? Pastor Mark Matheny knows that most of the forty are aged or aging, without great financial means, and they, too, support living missions rather than vestiges of earlier ones. Matheny complains that Memphis Heritage came along with too little, too late. Philanthropists who care about the appearance of a city? Groups like Inspired Partnerships and Partners for Sacred Places scare up some dollars from some of them, but too little.

Tour Europe, including the English and French countrysides and you can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of empty churches of dead congregations, buildings whose aesthetic and historic value exceeds that of the church in Memphis. No CVS is on hand to rescue them. They fall into the ground, through the centuries. Anyone who has a way out of these preservation plights: speak up, and pay up. Pastor Matheny has his own perspective, which he sees as biblical: “If you look through the New Testament, it says next to nothing abut the preservation of buildings.” It says nothing. Still, if we have cared about sacred places and spaces and memory and hope, we can regret, and we can shed a tear.


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


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

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of One Mind and Purpose -- A Sermon

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

If you go to Beijing, you’ll find the body of Chairman Mao nicely entombed, and if you’re in Moscow, you’ll find Lenin’s body on display, although he’s not as popular as he once was. Back at home, there aren’t any Presidential corpses on display, but depending on your political affiliation, the names FDR and Ronald Reagan may stand out in your pantheon of Great American Heroes.

It would seem that many seemingly larger than life figures, both living and dead, get elevated to almost divine status. Today’s living pantheon includes sports heroes, politicians, super models, film stars, media celebrities, and even big time preachers! Although there are those who relish in tearing down society’s idols, often sharing the most intimate details of these “heroes’s” lives in the various tabloids, we seem to enjoy basking in the glow of knowing even just a little bit about these larger than life people. If we get the chance to meet them, we do so with a great deal of shyness. Our palms get sweaty, our voices stammer nervously. It’s almost as if they’ve reached divine status – at least in our minds.

Now, back in St. Paul’s day, the members of the Corinthian church knew all about this reality. You see, the Roman Emperors were experts at cultivating personality cults, and so to be a Christian often meant choosing sides. By declaring Jesus to be Lord, you were declaring that Caesar wasn’t lord. Paul might have told the Romans to obey the authorities, but he didn’t give the Roman church permission to worship the emperor. And in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul tells a badly divided church to not create personality cults and parties that celebrate their heroes. Instead, he tells them – be of one mind and purpose. But, what does this mean for us?

1. It’s not about Me

The reason why Paul takes up the issue of unity is that the Corinthian Church had gotten tangled up in factional fighting. It had gotten so bad that one group in the church – the people affiliated with Chloe – sent Paul a letter, telling him that factionalism was brewing. Apparently some in the church claimed Paul as their mentor, while others hailed the name of Apollos, and still others Cephas or Peter. And then there were the purists, who claimed only to follow Christ.

As I read this litany of names, my thoughts go in two directions. First, I’m reminded that this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Disciples have made unity a hallmark of our identity, and so this is something worth lifting up in prayer. But even as we pray that the church might experience unity, I’m equally aware of the religious partisanship that has always challenged this call to unity of mind and purpose. Instead of Paul and Apollos and Cephas, I hear a different pantheon: “I’m for Aquinas; I’m for Calvin; I’m for Luther; I’m for Aimee Semple McPherson: I’m for Campbell or I’m for Stone! Who is your hero?

Isn’t it interesting that Paul also adds in Christ -- just in case someone wants to take the “high road” and claim that they we’re not part of any party, we’re just followers of Christ. Yes, we’re the purists. We don’t just go back to Calvin or Aquinas; we’re going all the way back to Jesus! As Disciples, we need to hear this word from Paul, for we have a tendency to see ourselves standing above the fray, representing no particular party, and we hold it over our brothers and sisters who take their names from famous founders. Yes, we’re not Lutherans, Calvinists, or even Baptists. Instead, while “We’re not the only Christians, we’re Christians only.”

The truth is, personalities can mess things up and get in the way of unity. It doesn’t have to be a famous theologian or founder; it could just be a clique that emerges in a congregation that seeks power over the life of the congregation. Sometimes this factional fighting starts off rather benignly – different people have different opinions and interests. Things go awry when we decide that our way is the only way.

Whatever you want to say about the dysfunctional nature of the Corinthian church, its strength was its diversity. Corinth was a bit like LA or New York. It was the crossroads of the Roman Empire. Ships from the east stopped there to transfer their loads to ships heading west to Rome, and the same was true of ships going in the opposite direction. And yet, despite the differences, they were sisters and brothers in Christ, but as we all know, sometimes siblings can fight with the best of them! As Kathleen Norris puts it:

The Corinthians remind me of my niece and nephew in their younger days when they fought ferociously over things both large and small. One afternoon as they raged over the question of who would sit in the front seat as Mom drove them home on the daily commute, I asked, “Is there anything you two won’t fight about?” The shouting stopped as both children looked at me. Beaming, they happily declared, “No!” and resumed their squabbling. Of course they love each other, and always have. (Christian Century, January 15, 2008, p. 23).
Norris thinks that Paul was hoping that this could be true of the Corinthians – that they would ultimately find unity in their common heritage of faith, in spite of their differences. Because ultimately, it’s not about me, but you O Lord.

2. Unity in Our Diversity

One way to achieve unity in the church is to make sure everyone thinks alike, talks alike, and looks alike. And you know what? It works! Not long ago church growth experts told us that birds of a feather flock together, and so the quickest way to build a church is to find your niche. And so we developed churches and worship services for the young and the old, for the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor, black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, and of course white churches. They called it the homogeneous principle, but the problem is that ultimately this principle undermines the message of the gospel by keeping the people of God separate from each other. It may alleviate a lot of “problems,” but the question is: Is this what God really wants for the church? Does God want uniformity or does God want us to find unity within our diversity? In other words can the organ crowd live together with the guitar crowd? Just to give an example! I hope so, because we’ve already begun heading down that road.

But stylistic differences are one thing – what about ethnic and cultural differences? Last Sunday we hosted the Martin Luther King Service, which is sponsored by the Michigan Disciples Black Minister’s Caucus. We got asked to host this event, because the sponsors wanted to bridge the gap that separates our churches. It was a wonderful event, but it’s one thing to gather for a special event. It’s a very different thing to become a truly multi-ethnic congregation.

We often talk about becoming more diverse, but moving from talk to reality is, as they say, a long and winding road. The first step in taking this road is to recognize that being multi-ethnic involves more than adding a few people of color to a congregation. No, from what I’ve read a multi-ethnic congregation is one that has more than 20% of its membership that is different from the majority culture. And second, getting to that point is not easy.

You see there are cultural, social, political, and theological differences that have to be negotiated. Too often when we think about becoming more diverse, we just assume that the people who come to us will simply assimilate themselves without making any real changes in the way we live together as God’s people. But that’s not the way it happens. The good news is that we may have already begun to take some of the steps necessary to get to that point. For instance, there are the little things we’ve done to broaden the worship style to include both traditional and non-traditional forms. We’ve launched an alternative worship service that is planned and led by young adults, but which is not simply a “young adult” service. We’re reaching out and building partnerships with predominantly African-American congregations and we’ve joined in the work of rebirthing Detroit through our involvement with Motown Mission. We’ve become more involved with congregations outside the denomination and we’ve taken an increasingly larger role within the local interfaith movement. These are first steps that God is blessing.

3. Rooted in the Cross

The way forward will require us to embrace the unity that only the Spirit of God can bring to us. When we hear that voice within us saying: Why should I accommodate myself to the needs of the other? When we find ourselves saying: If they want to come here, then they need to learn to assimilate and be like me, then we need to hear the call to embrace the cross of Christ. And we do this because how we respond to this calling will affect the way the gospel is heard in our community.

The way relate to each other influences the way the message of Jesus gets heard. And that message is simply this: “Change your hearts and minds! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Mt. 4:17).

And to give us a sense of urgency, I think it’s important that we hear what the pollsters are telling us. Even though most church people are happy with the way things are, the general public doesn’t hold the church in high regard. This is especially true among the young. Even though religious people are, by and large, more generous than non-religious people, and while they’re more likely to volunteer than non-religious people, religious folk are also perceived as being more intolerant of others. In fact, it appears that the more you go to the church, the more intolerant you tend to be. We say we seek to be an accepting or welcoming congregation, but what does that mean? And how do we change this perception that the world has of the church?

The key, according to Paul, is found in the cross. You see the cross is scandalous, because it’s a sign of humiliation and weakness. To die on a cross is to experience complete powerlessness, and Paul suggests that if we’re going to experience unity in the midst of our diversity, then we must be willing to let go of that drive to gain power over others. To be of one mind and purpose, as Paul suggests, requires that we take a position of humility that is exemplified by Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s not that there is no place for leadership, but it is a question of how we wield that leadership. Do we use power to benefit ourselves or to benefit others? This is the question that Paul poses to us as we pause to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 23, 2011