Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wrestling till Daybreak -- A sermon

Genesis 32:22-31

When I was a kid, my mother decided I needed to learn how to defend myself and so she signed me up for wrestling camp.  Although I’d rather have been at basketball camp, for the next six Saturdays I learned to wrestle.  Since I never became a very proficient wrestler, I got knocked out in the first round of the tournament that ended the camp.  Much to my relief!   There’s another kind of wrestling besides the one I learned at camp.  They call it professional wrestling, and in professional wrestling, which I used to watch on Saturday afternoons, neither desire nor proficiency is the key to success.  That’s because the outcome is determined by a script.   

When it comes to wrestling Jacob wasn’t a professional!  No, he was a competitive wrestler, who when challenged would fight to win.  He’d been that way since he shared his mother’s womb with his twin brother.  His parents named him Jacob because he grabbed Esau’s heel and tried to pass him in the birth canal.  It didn’t quite work out as Jacob planned, but he didn’t give up.  He got Esau to trade his birthright for a nice bowl of stew and then tricked his father into giving the blessing by pretending to be Esau.  When he went to his uncle’s house looking for a wife, he ended up taking half of Laban’s flocks through trickery.  Jacob was a struggler, who did what he could to get on top of the situation.

Now he’s decided to return home and claim his inheritance.  Unfortunately he hadn’t reconciled with Esau, and it’s been reported that Esau is heading their way with 400 men.  Although Jacob takes some precautions, such as sending tribute ahead of his party and dividing his people and flocks into two companies, fear starts to set in.  The day of reckoning is at hand, and he’s not sure how it will end   

Having sent his family across the river, Jacob sits there all alone by the fire, unable to sleep, and worrying about the future.  He prayed that God would remain faithful to the promises made to him, that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations, but he didn’t know for sure what would happen next.  

While he was sitting by the fire,  someone attacked him from behind, and a wrestling match began that would last until daybreak.    This wasn’t “professional wrestling” where the ending was already scripted, and so Jacob fought back against his unknown assailant.  When dawn began to break, the attacker pleaded with Jacob:  "let me go because the sun is about to rise.”   Jacob was the winner, but he wouldn’t let go, even when the attacker dislodged his hip from its joint.  He wasn’t going to let go until his attacker gave him a blessing.  That blessing, which he secured by taking up a challenge would change everything.  This blessing involved a name change, and so he went from being the “one who supplants,” to the "one who struggled with God and humans and prevailed."  Yes, Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed, though he would carry a reminder of his struggle – a limp – but his identity was now assured.  Armed with confidence gained through this struggle, Jacob, now Israel, was ready to face his brother.  And the good news is that they would be reconciled! 
It’s an interesting story, but there’s more to it than simply a wrestling match with a divine entity.  Like Jacob and Israel, we too have our wrestling matches with God, through which we seek to discern God’s purpose and live it out in our lives and in our congregation. 

There are those who believe that God is  like a professional wrestler, and so if we get in a match with God the outcome is already determined.  Because God is in control of our destiny, these wrestling matches have been fixed.   But is this true?  Is our destiny already decided? Is it possible for us to wrestle with God and prevail?  Can our decisions and choices influence and affect the way God is present in the world?  It’s not that God’s character changes, it’s a question of whether the future is open or not.   

Like Jacob we all face difficult decisions, and often there are no easy and clean answers, In our struggle to discern God’s direction, we pray and meditate, we read the Scriptures and talk to  friends.  We might even “ask the pastor.”   In many cases we make decisions not knowing how the future will turn out, but in our wrestling matches with God we hear words of blessing and know that God is with us.  
There are some who believe that it’s not appropriate to ask questions of God and to have doubts about matters of faith.  Their counsel is to have faith and believe without question.  But Jacob had his doubts and David and Job and Mary had their questions to ask of God, just as we have our questions.  There are times when we have a hard time discerning whether God is present in our time of trial.  We wonder:  If God is love and if God has already determined the present and the future, then why is there so much evil and destruction in our world?  Sometimes our experiences in life cause us to rethink the way we understand the nature and character of God!  Like Jacob, when we wrestle with God, not only do we receive blessings, but we discern a way forward into the future knowing that we’re not alone.  

The story of Jacob’s wrestling match seems to have an invitation.  God says: throw your best punch; ask your questions.  If life doesn’t make sense, then tell God your reasons, whether it’s 9-11, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the death of innocent children, a hurricane, or AIDS.  I think God is ready for a real wrestling match, not one of those “professional” ones where the ending is already determined.    

Like Jacob our futures are uncertain.  Some of us face health issues that require difficult decisions.  Others face financial uncertainty, especially if you’re dependent on Social Security and you don’t know if checks will go out this week.  Some of us have theological questions.  We wonder about the character and purpose of God.  Maybe we struggle with a seeming lack of justice in the world or the traditional definitions of God no longer work for us.    As a congregation we face the reality that our demographic is older than the norm and we wonder how to draw in younger adults and children. 

These are the kinds of questions and issues that God embraces.  Our God is not a passive spectator.  God is an engaged participant in our lives.  Since God doesn’t act coercively, maybe the wrestling analogy has its limitations.  But, in the struggle, it appears that our lives are transformed by our engagement with God.  

On August 27th we’ll have an opportunity to engage God and each other in a conversation about our church, its mission, and its future.  In our all-church retreat that Alex will be leading, we’ll be learning some important skills that will help us work together to accomplish God’s purpose in the world.  In this retreat we’ll be revisiting our core values and we will wrestle with them as we seek to discern our future. Then in September Bruce Epperly is coming to lead us in a conversation about how we might more deeply root our missional work in God’s life. These are important events, because they will help us wrestle with our sense of calling.   Standing before us are important questions like whether we’re ready to nest an intentional Christian community that could lead to a new congregation?   There are issues of diversity in age and ethnicity, and as our General Minister, Sharon Watkins, reminded us at the General Assembly we must  face the question of whether we’re willing to truly welcome our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters into  our churches.

So, as a church, we stand at the river’s edge, able to see some of the future unfolding before us, but knowing that the future is not yet complete.  Having wrestled with God, we face the question of whether we’re willing to cross the river with boldness, ready to embrace the future that God is preparing for us.  We’ve already made great strides toward becoming a truly missional church, but this is an ongoing journey, with many rivers to cross and therefore lots of wrestling matches to endure.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2011

Saturday, July 30, 2011

At an Impasse? August 2nd looms large!

August 2nd has become an increasingly important day in the life of many Americans, and it is also an important day in the lives of the people of Troy, MI.  On August 2nd, the American government will run out of money.  It will be facing the prospect of having more budgeted obligations to pay for than moneys to pay the bills.  Much of this obligation includes Social Security and Medicare payments, Medicare and military pay.  That is coupled with interest on the debt.  The last must be paid or we will officially be deadbeats, and will lose all credibility with those who own this debt.  It's likely that this will be paid, but there are a lot of other payments that need to be made, from those social security checks to the sent out to the pay for our military.  Oh, and then there are the meat inspectors at USDA and the security folk at our airports, Pell grants for students and more.  Come Tuesday, the executive branch will have to decide which bills to pay, and somebody isn't going to get paid.  

On Tuesday the people of Troy, MI will go to the polls.  Standing before them will be one issue, whether or not to create a dedicated stream of income over a five year period to fund the library.  If it doesn't pass, then on Friday the library will close.  It's a really good library and it's used by a lot of people.  In fact it's the second busiest library in the county and it's budget is one of the lowest for a full service library.  The choices here are very stark.  We can fund the library with a property tax assessment of 70 cents per 1000 dollar value or close the library.  Oh, we could continue funding it through the general budget as some in the community suggest, but that would mean drawing rather precipitously from a fund balance that is there in cases of emergency, or it would mean cutting other important services, including public safety.  Again, the choice is stark and the choice that is made will affect a lot of people.

I title this post "at an impasse?" because we seem to be at a point in our history as a nation when we find it increasingly difficult to work together.  I'm not opposed to partisanship.  Political parties provide us with choices.  They're messy, but they're necessary.  The alternatives to the American system are not improvements.  On one hand you have the one-party state, where the party in power controls everything -- like China.  Then there are multi-party states like Israel and Italy, but they are always facing instability.  In many cases fringe parties set the terms of the debate, because even if small they are often needed to build a parliamentary majority.  So, I think our 2 party system fairs pretty well in comparison.  At least that was true until recently.  

The current debt crisis is a telling example of what has happened in recent years to our political system.  In part due to gerrymandering, very few members of the House of Representatives face a challenge from members of the other party.  That means the primary is the real decider.  Thus, the "base" decides who goes to Congress.  In this current Congress, as we saw just last night, although a minority of members, the Tea Party inspired folks have controlled the debate.  We could easily have had a deal weeks ago, perhaps a grand bargain, as the President gave as much as he could to the Republicans, knowing that he was angering or making anxious members of his own party.  But a deal could not be struck, because the hands of the Speaker of the House were tied by a group of members who don't care about the political consequences, but are driven totally by ideology.  They are willing to let the system crash and the economy crash because "compromise" is not an acceptable word.  As one commentator pointed out last night, it's yet to sink into their heads that they don't control the Senate.  So, nationally we're at an impasse, and we don't know if we can work it out.  (My hope and expectation is that cooler heads will come to the front and it will happen, but we don't know if this is true).

Then locally, a small group of ideologues have chosen the library to be the focus of their anti-tax stand.  Theirs is a radical libertarian message, but it's a message that doesn't bode well for the nation or the city.  If they win out, and they could, not only will the library close, but they will be making it clear to those moving into the area that Troy, MI is not a city to consider.  All around us communities have chosen to support their libraries with revenue increases.  Those cities can say to prospective buyers that theirs is a better choice.  Businesses will hear the same message.  My hope is that cooler heads will prevail, that ideology will be set aside, and that reality will come to the fore, and the people of the community will pass this resolution.  

Are we at an impasse?  Are we so divided as a community and as a nation that we can no longer listen to each other or hear each other?  

So, as we consider the future and whether we can move out of this impasse, I want to leave you with these words from Parker Palmer on the importance of reclaiming space for public life.

Ask Americans what must be done to repair American politics, and most responses will focus on "them,"  the people who hold elective office and the governing bodies in which they serve.  It is an understandable mistake:  our headline news is dominated by people and events at the centers of political power.  But it is a mistake.  The most important thing "We the People" can do to restore democracy is to restore the venues and vitality of the public life that we have opportunities to participate in on a daily basis.  Only via local connections, multiplied many times over, can citizens hope to generate the level of people power necessary to effect political change.  (Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 108).  
Do we want a way out of the impasse?  The ball is in our court! 

Friday, July 29, 2011

Voting Yes for a Library and the Value of Public Spaces

On Tuesday, August 2, 2011, the people of Troy, MI have the opportunity to vote for a property tax increase (it's really not an increase because housing values are diminishing and so the amount of tax we're paying each year is decreasing).  But, we will go to the polls to vote yes or no on a .70 millage for 5 years.  That "tax" calls for property owners to pay .70 cents per 1000 dollars of taxable property value (half the assessed value).  I can tell you that my increase will be well below $100, and I'm quite willing to pay for it.   Now the opponents of this increase have used all manner of convoluted arguments, many of which are false or misleading, to try to convince the community that we can have a library without an increase.  This simply isn't true.  If the library stays then cuts elsewhere in the budget, probably in public safety, will have to be made.  So, my family and I will all be voting yes on this very reasonable assessment to protect a vital service in our community.  
But perhaps you wonder why we need a public library.  After all, we can just as easily get the information we need on the Internet (unless you happen to be one of many who doesn't have a computer at home and make use of the ones at the library) or by downloading books and magazines and newspapers on your e-reader.  This is true, for many people today, but there remains a digital divide that only a library is able to bridge.

But, let's move simply beyond the point of delivery of information services and think about the value of public spaces, places that are free and open to everyone, no matter who they are.  It doesn't matter your age, your ethnicity, your social status, or your education.  It doesn't matter if you can afford to buy a book or not.  A library is a place of public gathering, a place where people can bump into each other and share ideas with each other.  And this is important as we watch the public sphere become increasingly privatized.  That is, we are seeing a nation retreat into smaller and more compact spaces, where the stranger need not be engaged.  This isn't good for us as individuals, but it's also not good for our nation.  Indeed, much of our current political debate is little more than echo chambers, where people of like mind talk to each other, with little cross fertilization.

In his very important book Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer speaks of the importance of creating public spaces, spaces where social and political bonds can be built, where we can learn from and about others, and help us move out of our private spaces.  Libraries are such a place.  This is especially true in suburban communities like Troy, MI.  We don't have a downtown.  There are no public streets lined with shops and restaurants.  There are only private malls, and the library, community center, the public parks.  All of these are under threat, but especially the library.  As to the purpose of these spaces, Palmer writes:

The most vital purpose served by all such places is hidden in plain sight.  They give us an experience of civic community beyond the narrow confines of private and political life.  They offer us opportunities for creative interactions without which the social fabric of democracy soon becomes tattered and frayed and will unravel sooner or later.  They allow strangers with interwined fates a chance to keep restoring the fabric of a good society.  (Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 98).

It's not just about education or information or big government versus small government -- it's about the good society.  It's about creating spaces where together we can work for the common good, and not just a privatized good.  Ultimately, in the end, we're all in this together!  One step toward maintaining the possibility of working toward the common good, in my mind, is to make sure that our library has a steady stream of dedicated funds so it can operate effectively!  So, if you're in Troy on Tuesday, vote yes!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Divine Blessings -- A Lectionary Meditation

Genesis 32:22-31

Romans 9:1-5

Matthew 14:13-21

Divine Blessings

           The 18th century Baptist minister and hymn writer Robert Robinson opens his hymn by defining God as the “fount of every blessing,” a fount that tunes “my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.”  God is our fount of every blessing, the one who showers down upon creation divine favor.  There is in the biblical story a constant refrain of divine abundance, which creation is invited to share in.  For some this idea of divine favor or blessing is taken to rather crass lengths, for it is defined in completely material terms (prosperity gospel).   When we define divine favor in such ways, it is easy for us to begin to judge our neighbors on the basis of their material prosperity.  If you are healthy and wealthy, then you must be wise.  For how else would you be in such a good position?  But, if you struggle with your health or with your finances, then something must be wrong with you.  Surely you are not experiencing divine favor, but rather divine judgment.  What you need to do is repent and/or have more faith.  But, is this the way we should define the blessings of God?   Is the idea of divine blessing rooted in some quid pro quo arrangement?  Or is it rooted in divine grace?  After all, doesn’t God pour out the rain upon the just and the unjust?

            When we read these lectionary texts from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew at the surface level we find little similarity or connection.  You have the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the man that apparently is an incarnation of the divine presence, you have Paul speaking of the blessings that God has shared with the people of Israel (and his own despair that they are not responding to his message of Jesus, and finally in Matthew we find Jesus feeding the 5000.  There is a lot of difference here, and yet each has within it a message of divine blessing.

            As we read the stories of Jacob, we quickly discover that this is no ordinary man.  He’s not a superman, but he is resourceful and persistent.  It would seem that at every turn, the odds are stacked against him – even from his birth just seconds after Esau.  Still, he knows what he wants and he is determined to get it, which leads him to seek every advantage he can over those who would hold him back, whether that is Esau’s birthright, Laban’s switching of his wife, or now a wrestling match with a strange man (divine being).    Having spent fourteen years serving his father-in-law he is returning home, with wives, children, and half of his uncle’s flocks in tow.  The point is reconciliation with his brother and making his claim on the land he should have inherited from Isaac (since he got the birthright).  Before, he crosses the river to face his brother, he decides to spend some time alone, perhaps trying to   work up the courage to face the brother he has obviously offended (why else the big offering of gifts?).   As he’s sitting there on the far side of the river, having sent his family and his flocks across the river, a man jumps him and engages him in a wrestling match that will last through the night.  Jacob is quite the wrestler, because despite the surprise of the attack, he holds his own.  They wrestle till daybreak, and it’s not until the attacker knocks Jacob’s joint out of its socket that Jacob’s hold loosens.  Even then he doesn’t let go, and he won’t let go until the man gives him a blessing.    

            The blessing that is given to Jacob involves a change of name – his new name, Israel, means, according to this passage, “you’ve striven with God and humans, and prevailed.”  You took on God, engaged God in a wrestling match, and you have prevailed, therefore you are the beneficiary of divine favor.  What does this mean for Jacob (now Israel)?  You can get a sense of what he is feeling in the way he chooses to name this spot along the Jabbok River.  He calls it Peniel, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”  What is the nature of this blessing?  It’s not material (he’s already got plenty of material blessings).   Instead, it appears that in facing God and wrestling with God, he has gained is courage and confidence.  If he can wrestle with God and prevail, then why fear his brother?  He’s seen God face to face, and survived, so what can his brother do to him. 

            It is assumed by some that if one wishes to experience the fullness of God’s blessings, then one must never question God.  That “truism” is disproved in this story, for instead of being rejected by God for laying down the challenge, Jacob is blessed.  The story suggests that there is room for us to push the boundaries with God.  Indeed, I believe that God welcomes this response.  God is looking for partners not patsies!  In this there is divine favor!

            Paul speaks of divine blessings in a different but related manner from the way they are described in Genesis.  Whereas Jacob receives a new name to mark his favored status in the eyes of God, Paul grieves that his own people, the children of Jacob (Israel), who are the are recipients of God’s many blessings, ranging from the covenants to the Law, from the Patriarchs to the divine worship, have not received his message that the Messiah has come into the world.  He is so distraught that he’s willing to sacrifice his own life and future happiness if it would mean that his people might receive the message of Christ.  This brief passage begins a rather lengthy and at times convoluted meditation on the fate of God’s covenant people.  At one level, Paul insists that the covenant is a spiritual one and that birth is by itself no guarantee of inclusion in the people of God.  Indeed, he’s hopeful that a remnant will remain faithful, and yet by the end of this meditation, he seems to resolve this wrestling match by concluding that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (11:24).  So, what do we make of this brief statement of grief and thanksgiving?  If, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, this passage opens an extended meditation directed at Gentiles, reminding them that they have been invited into a covenant God made with Israel, and therefore, they shouldn’t hold themselves above Israel, then we must read and hear this passage with great care.  It is a reminder to Gentiles that the covenant that the covenant that God is inviting them to share in, has already been set forth with Israel.  Now, they too are children of Israel, and not replacements for Israel.  The key to the promise here is that God is faithful to the covenants God makes with us, even if we’re not always faithful.  God doesn’t cast us off, if we don’t “measure up.”  This isn’t an endorsement of Christian Zionism, which supports the actions of the modern nation of Israel without question (and with ulterior motives), but rather a reminder that whether Jew or Gentile, we are servants of the same God, who remains faithful to promises.  In this case, as Allen and Williamson note, while Paul has contended that Abraham is the ‘father’ of Gentiles but her reminds Gentiles that “Abraham is not their exclusive possession.”  Paul may grieve that more of his own people haven’t responded positively to his proclamation of the gospel, but the Gentiles need to remember this:
Jesus took form in the history and Scriptures of Israel; he is a gift to Gentiles from the God of Israel and the Israel of God (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law, pp. 78-79). 
And for this faithfulness to the promise on the part of God, Paul can declare that God is blessed forever!

            In this gospel reading we see the extension of God’s blessing to a people who are hungry.  Jesus, though he is wearied by the news that John the Baptist has been executed, a weariness that has led him to leave the crowds behind and take a boat to a more secluded spot, he has compassion for those who follow him to this deserted place.  It is interesting that while the crowd took a land route and he took a boat, a crowd is waiting for him when he comes ashore, and taking compassion on them, Jesus begins healing the sick.  When evening came, the disciples got worried.  Here they were in a deserted place, with little food, and a large crowd.  As we know, hungry crowds can turn dangerous, and they weren’t comfortable with their situation, so they recommend that Jesus send the crowd away before it gets too late.  In response, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd themselves.  Surely they heard this directive with disbelief, for between them, all they had were five loaves of bread and two fish.  This meager amount of food wasn’t enough to serve such a great crowd, which Matthew says numbered 5,000 men, as well as women and children (are we open to 15,000 in attendance?).  But Jesus wouldn’t be deterred and so they agreed to gather the crowd together, and handing the food to Jesus he blessed it and then had the food distributed.  When all had been fed and were satisfied, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of bread crumbs.  How did this happen?  Well, there are those who invoke a supernaturalism, while others suggest that by offering what they had, Jesus modeled sharing for the crowd (who had their own hidden stashes).  My sense is that both attempts at “explaining” the event miss the point.  The point is that Jesus is bringing to the people the blessings of God and inviting them to share in this sign of life together.  One can see in this event hints of the Eucharistic service, for Jesus breaks and blesses the bread before it is distributed, which in itself a reminder that our true blessings come in sharing the feast with God.  But all of this is rooted not in Jesus’ need to do another big miracle to prove his messiahship, but is a sign of compassion, divine love, shared with the people of God.

            May we come to the one who is the fount of every blessing, so that our hearts might be tuned in such a way that we might join together and sing of God’s bounteous grace, a grace that includes us into God’s covenant people, indeed, a grace that leads us into embracing God’s vision of abundance (isn’t the feeding of the thousands a sign of divine abundance?).   

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

An Ode to Borders

I remember the first time I ever entered a Borders bookstore. It was in suburban Kansas City. I was amazed at the size of this store and the breadth of its coverage. Now this wasn’t the biggest bookstore I’d ever entered. I had spent time at Powell’s in Portland, which is the biggest store I’d ever entered, and still is among the largest in the country. So, it wasn’t the size so much as the reality that here was a store where I could indulge my interests without having to fly to Portland.

Being a theology professor, and knowing that most Christian bookstores had ceased selling anything but the narrowest of lines (and what we not so lovingly call “Jesus Junk”), it was nice to be able to see what was new, not only among Christian writers, but Jewish and Muslim and even secular writers.

Now we watch as this giant of chains is near its demise. We mourn its loss as symbolic of the loss of presence of brick and mortar stores, even as we (I) obtain more and more of our goods online at places like Amazon. It is somewhat ironic that the very store that helped push independent bookstores out of existence has now suffered much the same fate due to Amazon’s power.

Of course it didn’t help that Borders failed to capitalize on the e-reader phenomenon like its rival — Barnes and Noble – which has created an e-reader that competes fairly effectively with the Kindle (Amazon).

The demise of Borders raises important questions about the future of reading; especially as many local libraries face diminishment and even closure (my local library faces closure if the citizenry doesn’t vote to extend the property tax rate by 7 cents per 1,000 of value). Yes, we can (and we do) order online and even download books, but there’s something about going to the store and browsing.

When I go into a Borders or a Barnes and Noble (or when I’m in Portland – Powell’s), it’s a nice feeling to pick up and examine a newly published book. I can peruse its pages and consider whether it is worth my investment in time and money. Of course, like many, I must confess, I have made that discernment in the bookstore and then headed home and ordered online. I realize that I have contributed to the demise of this chain, but I must mourn our loss nonetheless.

My hope is that even as Borders dies, new shops will emerge, perhaps more specialized ones, where we can have that opportunity to hold in our hands the printed word. Oh, and about the e-book phenomenon. I have a Kindle and find it useful, but it’s still not the same as the printed page. And to give some context, Captain Kirk decided that he too needed to hold and read a real book – Dr. McCoy even fashioned reading glasses for him. So maybe even the future holds the prospect of our being able to hold real paper in our hands so that we might continue reading as we have for generations!

For now, however, may Border’s rest in peace (as of September 30).

Article first published as An Ode to Borders: Will New Bookstores Emerge? on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Deal or No Deal?

The NFL Players Association have voted to accept the Owner's offers and so come fall we'll have NFL football.  Our nation's economy may be in free-fall and we may have defaulted on outstanding debt.  But, at least we'll have Monday Night Football, even if Howard and Dandy Don are long since dead.  And so all will be good, as long as we can afford to keep the TV set running!

If you're intently following every zig and zag of the Debt Limit talks you're exhausted by now.  Maybe you have a good idea about what all this means or maybe you're totally confused.  After all, there are all these competing TV ads telling us to cut all that waste and fraud (but don't touch my subsidies or my benefits or raise my taxes).  Now, I'll admit that I've thrown my lot in with one side of the debate (I'm not against partisanship, as long as at the end of the day the parties remain committed to achieving the common good).  I'm also a political realist and not a political purist -- so I understand that politics is the art of the possible.  At the end of the day our political system is set up so that you have to come to a middle position, especially if one party doesn't control all branches of government.   So, the question is:  Are these two parties (sorry independents, you really don't have a stake in this game) willing to set aside their political goals for the sake of the country.  And what are the goals?

Well, for the GOP it's real simple -- they have to make it impossible for President Obama to be re-elected.  The only way they can do this is for the economy to remain in the doldrums.  If the economy improves (that is unemployment goes down), they can't get the White House back.  Plus, they want the Senate in their hands.  

What do the Democrats want?  Well, they want to re-elect the President, even if he doesn't always do what the party purists want him to do.  They also want to take back the House and retain control of the Senate.  To do this they need to make sure the economy grows.  

So, with these goals in mind, you can see who has more political interest in growing the economy, at least in the short term.  [If you're an Independent and you want to see things improve sooner than later, I think you can see who to get behind!]

Now, in the end everyone could grow up and do what is right and lay aside their political goals, but that's going to be difficult.  We live at a time when, despite the expansion of communication devices, people seem less informed than ever before.  Part of this is that there are so many competing venues that people simply can't discern truth from fiction.  Ultimately many simply opt out.  My word of advice is to say that this isn't a good idea.

I don't believe that any form of government or any political party platform is divinely ordained.  I do believe that democracy, for all of its faults, is the best form yet devised.  It can be messy, but it's also the only form of government that allows people the opportunity to participate in their own governance.  But, if you like living in a democracy you have a responsibility to make sure it works properly.  That's the difficult part.  We have to act like adults in the way we vote and hold our leaders accountable.

Since there's a crisis brewing, maybe now is the time to get to work.  Of course, there's always football!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Sin of Traditionalism?

Tradition has its place.  After all, I'm a historian, so by my own professional training I have committed myself to the study of the past.  Tradition provides a foundation for who we are and what we do in life.  As a Christian, the traditions of baptism and the Lord's Supper have provided me with an anchor.  The faith that we embrace is a "tradition" passed from one generation to the next.  Consider the way that Paul laid out the message he was sharing with the churches he had founded:
3 I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, 4 he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scripture. (I Cor. 15:3-4 CEB).
This message goes on from there to include the full accounting of the death, resurrection, and appearances.  For Paul this is the summary of first importance.  We are heirs of that story, but what if tradition turns into traditionalism.  That is, what happens when what once was done becomes ossified and it becomes an idol that keeps us from embracing God's calling in the present moment?   

While tradition has an important place in our lives, could traditionalism, the holding on to outworn practices and beliefs, be sin?  I raise this possibility advisedly, because I don't want to suggest that because someone prefers an older style of music or is resistant to a particular innovation that I or another person brings into the community is a sin.  Still, Bruce Epperly raises the point in his study of Process Theology, and I think it's worth considering.  He writes:
Sin may also involve the turning away from God's aim at creative transformation by holding on to outworn traditions.  In seeking to preserve a particular tradition or way of life, we may be standing in the way of the future God intends for us and our communities.  We may be stifling the imaginative and innovative possibilities that are part of what it means to be created in the image of God.  Process theology recognizes the importance of tradition and the preservation of the values of our faith and culture, but these are always subject to transformation in light of changing social and cultural situations.      (Epperly, Process Theology, p. 88).
 As we seek to heed God's call to bear witness to God's grace in both word and deed so that the world might experience God's transforming grace and love, how do discern where and when "we have sinned" by turning away from God's aim?

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If God Is for Us . . . A Sermon

Romans 8:26-39

On a hot and humid evening this past week, as we watched the Tigers play the Oakland A’s, John Balogh asked me whether I would be preaching a baseball-themed sermon?  Being a lifelong baseball fan,  I couldn’t let a request like that get away, and so I began thinking about how baseball might fit with this morning’s sermon theme.      

In Romans 8 Paul poses a question:  “If God is for us, then who can be against us?”   Now, if you’re a Tiger’s fan, could you see God’s hand at work during the game Tuesday evening?  Because they won big, surely God must be on the side of the Tigers!   Of course, not everyone saw things this way, because two members of our group wore caps of the then first place Cleveland Indians.   And while I donned a Tiger’s hat and rooted them on as they played the hapless Oakland A’s, just few weeks earlier I wore a San Francisco Giants cap to the Giants-Tigers game and rooted for my boyhood team.   So, on that night I was one of the few in the stadium who went home happy. So, if God is a baseball fan, whose side is God on?    And, if victory is a mark of God’s support, then surely God must be a Yankee fan, because  no team has accumulated as many championships as they have.  I’m sure most of you will agree with me that God could not be a Yankee fan! 

So, what does it mean for us to claim that if God is for us, then no one or no thing can stand against us?   Being that this is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War and because Cheryl and I happened to stop at Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky on our way home from the General Assembly, I wondered how this great American President would answer the question.  Lincoln said something in his Second Inaugural Address that seems to pertain to this question.  

Lincoln may not have been a church member in good standing, but he had a keen theological mind, and he was well aware that both sides in this horrible conflict that took nearly 700,000 lives were praying that God would bless their cause.  Both sides seemed to believe that “if God is for us, then who can be against us.”  I have my own thoughts as to whose side God favored, but Lincoln recognized the difficulties involved in claiming God’s blessings.  And so, in his Second Inaugural Address, as he tried  to prepare a fractured nation for reunion once the war ended, he spoke these words: 
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
Although Constantine believed that God gave him the cross as a sign of conquest, Lincoln was a much better theologian when it came to such matters.    

But it’s not just about war or God’s favoring a particular nation with blessings.  If God is for us, then where is God when atrocities like the massacre in Norway occur?  Or, when a natural disaster like the quake in Haiti strikes?   These are not easy questions to answer, and yet they are asked regularly.

Perhaps we can begin to find answers in the opening verses of our text from Romans 8, where Paul tells the Roman church that if you don’t know how to pray, then the Spirit, who knows our hearts, and God’s heart, will plead “our case with unexpressed groans.”   Although we may be impressed by long and eloquent prayers, God isn’t so obsessed with the quality of our words, and is more concerned about what is going on in our hearts.  So, even if all we can do is offer God our unexpressed groans, God will hear them and respond.    

We can find hope and strength, Paul says, in knowing that “in all things God works for good for those who love God.”  Do you hear in this statement an invitation to join with God in pursuing that which is good in this world?  Do you hear an invitation to join with God in bringing blessings, not just to one nation, but to the whole of creation?  Remember our Disciple motto:  “We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”   We have experienced this partnership of blessing this summer as we shared in the launch of our Motown Partnership and our partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, two exciting expressions of our Missional calling.  And these ministries have been infused by the Spirit, whom we have encountered as we’ve made ourselves available to God so that we can be a means of blessing to our world.  

As we hear in Romans 8 words about being part of the elect, the called ones, there are echoes of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, where God  promised that it would be through their descendants that the peoples of this world  would be blessed.   We could hear this promise in very deterministic ways, in which God has already determined who is in and who is out, and therefore the ones whom God has chosen to be blessed will make it through to the end.  But, is this how we understand the promises of God? 

As we consider this question, maybe we should look to the Chicago Cubs for a good analogy of the way in which God is with us in the world.  If we see God as the big Yankee fan in the sky, then we must judge God on the number of “championships” won.  But, if we picture God as a Cubs fan, knowing that it’s been decades since they were last in the World Series, let alone having won one, then we can understand God not as the great decider, but as the beloved companion who remains faithful in all things and shares in our sufferings and partners with us in bringing healing and hope to all of creation.      

This text and it’s promise that God is for us raises questions about our understanding of the nature and character of God.  If you’re like me, you grew up with the idea that God is an all-powerful being who sweeps in and takes care of us when needed, sort of a like a divine Mr. Fix-It.   Indeed, we tend to give thanks when something wonderful happens to us or to a friend, but what about all of those times in which God doesn’t seem to intervene?  That is, if God is love as we believe, and if God is all-powerful, then why didn’t God stop that gunman in Norway from taking the lives of eighty-four people at a camp, most of whom were children?   

Over the years I’ve had to rethink the way in which I understand how God is for us and with us.  The traditional understanding of God, which speaks of God as this all-powerful being who knows all things and can do all things, no longer makes sense of the world in which I live.  Although I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet, instead of seeing God as the great Yankee in the sky, I’ve come to see God as the one who walks with us in our suffering and invites us into partnership so that together we can bring hope and healing and justice to our world.  Maybe this is a view of God that a Cubs fan, and maybe a Lion’s fan, can appreciate.   

Our text begins with a promise that when we can’t figure out how to pray or what to ask, then the Spirit will pray on our behalf, and it ends with another promise.  That promise is an important one because it touches on one of the greatest fears that we have as human beings – that we might find ourselves alone and unloved.  The promise is that nothing – not adversity, illness, or even political powers – can separate us from the love of God.  

One of the things that has struck me about the Harry Potter series of books and movies is its emphasis on the importance of love, friendship, and loyalty.  While much responsibility is placed on Harry’s young shoulders, since he is the one everyone is looking to for their deliverance from the clutches of the evil one, he doesn’t take on this responsibility all by himself.  There are times when he feels alone and even abandoned, but throughout this series of stories his beloved friends, Ron and Hermoine, always have his back, and they’re not the only ones who are standing with him as he takes up this battle with the powers and principalities of this world. 

The promise is that God is for us, and therefore, nothing can stand against us.  The point is not that we’ll never experience suffering or tragedy, but in the midst of everything that happens in our lives, nothing separates us from the love of God, which we know and experience in Jesus Christ.  In this there is victory and there is hope. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 24, 2011   

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Harry Potter -- The Final Battle

My son is now 21 and is quite able to read for himself, but when the first of the Harry Potter books came out more than a decade ago it fell to me to read the stories to him, at least the first volume and maybe the second.  By then I was hooked, and continued reading until the end.  I also became hooked on the movies, which weave their own magic (you might say).  And yesterday Cheryl and I went and watched the final installment of the series. 

At the time the books first were published there was great debate as to whether good Christians should read stuff like this (even though Lewis's Narnia series also features wizards and witches -- both good and evil ones).  But I think most Christians, along with most everyone else, realized that this was a series worth reading and enjoying.  Not only that, we began to recognize important lessons emerging from the books.  I should note that the books matured as the characters matured (and that is maybe why this series has succeeded where others have not).   

Over time we read about and then watched stories that explore the seduction of evil and the necessity to stand firm against it -- even at the cost of one's life.  Although there is violence and the response to evil is not always nonviolent, this isn't the essence of the story. 

The Harry Potter series penned by JK Rowling speaks to important character traits such as fortitude, courage, loyalty, and friendship.  It also explores the possibility of betrayal -- with the character of Severus Snape (played so well in the series by Alan Rickman) offering us such a complex picture of humanity.  Is he Judas or is he something else?  Even at the end, we are left wondering, though we do seem to find that he has been redeemed himself.   Harry is, of course,the good one, the beloved, who is cast as the savior.  He is all that stands in the way of Voldemort's final victory.  Here in the final film, we find the two come face to face.  There will be a final reckoning, but there is much more to the film than this final meeting. There is something here about redemption and about loyalty. There is the death and resurrection.

But there is also friendship and loyalty. This is especially seen in the characters of Ron and Hermoine, the two people who have been with him at every moment along the way. But there are others, including Neville Longbottom and Luna, who stand on the margins, but play a signficant role in the story, especially near the end.

I'm not a film critic, so I'll not try to speak to those kinds of issues. I'll simply suggest that if you've never read the books -- read them. If you've never seen the movies, watch them. And by all means go see this one. Now, I saw it in "2D." See it in "3D" if you must, but don't get caught up in the effects. Pay attention to the message!!

To give you a taste -- here's a trailer -- just remember that a trailer doesn't always set the film out in its natural order.

Oh, and if you'd like to read my earlier thoughts about the series published in the Lompoc record -- click here.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Dual Citizenship?

To whom do I owe my allegiance?  In my book on the Lord's Prayer -- Ultimate Allegiance:  The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer -- I wrote that the Lord's Prayer is not just a prayer, it is a pledge of allegiance to God and to living in God's realm.  It is important to remember that in Matthew's version of the prayer, it is placed in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount, which lays out Jesus' kingdom ethic.  As Allan Bevere notes in his book The Politics of Witness, which I reviewed recently, in the course of time, following the embrace of the church by Constantine, this kingdom ethic has largely been put on the shelf as unworkable.  I stand by my claim for the Lord's Prayer, and Allan is largely correct as to how we've understood the Sermon on the Mount in the Constantinian era.  I want to reiterate up front that my ultimate allegiance is to God and to God's realm revealed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus the Christ.  That said, I need to ask us to consider what it means to be a citizen of God's realm and a citizen of a nation-state.

Without desiring to put Jesus at odds with Paul, I think it is also instructive that in the Book of Acts, Paul lays claim to his Roman citizenship on several occasions, even appealing a ruling to Caesar.  In Romans 13 Paul lays out principles for how to behave with regard to the state, suggesting that "there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God"  (Rom. 13:1).   Instead of suggesting that there is a contradiction here, I'd like to ask whether or not we need to wrestle with the question of dual citizenship.  Thus, I am both a citizen of the realm of God and a citizen of the United States (or even more broadly, a citizen of earth). But for a moment I want to stick with my citizenship as an American.  What does this ask of me?  In Allan's book,  he suggests that as Christians we might want to step out of partisan politics and seek to operate from the perspective that the church is our nation, and that the biblical injunctions apply not to the wider community, but to the church.  If' I've misunderstood his intent, I hope he'll correct me.  But that's really not where I want to focus.  Instead, I want to ask the question of my responsibilities for the common good, and whether or not my commitment to the good of all implies involvement in the body politic outside the church.  

I appreciate the words of Parker Palmer, who notes that while we might not all agree as to what the common good entails, "if we believe in our form of government, we must agree on an alternative definition that makes preserving democracy itself the focus of our concern."  He goes on to say:

We must be able to say, in unison:  It is the common good to hold our political differences and the conflicts they create in a way that does not unravel the civic community on which democracy depends.  (Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, p. 32)
In another place Palmer writes that the problem in our country isn't partisanship, but our tendency to demonize the other.  If you don't agree with me, you are the enemy.  This makes it difficult to work together to resolve problems, it also contributes to the nastiness of our political context, which is driving so many away from the political world.  We face the problem of a nation whose political foundations are in danger of crumbling.  It won't be the first time, of course, but the question is -- what shall we do about it?   And then, what should we do about this if we approach the conversation from the perspective of faith?  In other words, how do I live here and participate in the common good when I have dual citizenship?    

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Taking the Long View -- A lectionary meditation

Genesis 29:15-28
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Taking the Long View

It’s probably not news to many reading this meditation that we live in an age of instant gratification.  Although there are those who embrace simplicity, slow food and the bicycle as a mode of transportation, most of us want results now.  In politics, we give the elected about two weeks to solve all the problems of the world before we’re ready to vote them out of office, even though the problems in front of us have taken a long time in developing.  Therefore, we find it difficult to take the long view.  This is true even in the church, where we demand results right now.  So, we go to a church growth seminar, come back home and try out a few ideas and then expect the church to be full of new people the next week.  Of course, this doesn’t happen and so we jettison what we learned and look for the next fix (or go looking for a new job if we’re clergy!).  Persistence and patience, these are not the virtues of the present age.  Having said this, I should note that persistence and patience aren’t the same as stubbornness or intransigence.  There is no need to keep hitting one’s head against an unmovable wall!
 The three texts for this week (I’m using the Genesis 29 text rather than the 1 Kings passage) speak to this call to take the long view.  Jacob will work seven years for the hand of his beloved only to find that he has been tricked and has to work another seven to truly get the hand of the beloved.  Paul speaks of staying true to God’s calling even in the midst of suffering, knowing that in the end nothing will separate us from God’s love.  Finally, we turn to the gospel reading from Matthew, which lifts up several relatively short parables of the kingdom, which also carry on this theme of taking the long view.  

The story of Jacob’s pursuit of Rachel is well-known to many.  He has gone to Haran, to seek a wife from the household of his uncle – Laban – who has two unmarried daughters.  One has beautiful eyes, while the younger one is “graceful and beautiful.”  Note that Jacob has eyes for the one with a beautiful form rather than lovely eyes.  So smitten was Jacob that he agreed to work for seven years to receive the hand of Rachel, only to discover the morning after that the woman he had slept with was Leah.  When he complains about being tricked (remember that Jacob is known for being a trickster himself), Laban makes the common sense explanation that in that country the younger daughter doesn’t get married until the older one gets married.  So if he wants Rachel, he has to take Leah as well.  Once he has “done his duty” with Leah (one week), then he can have the one he wants.  I realize that this story is off-putting to our modern sensibilities.  First you have the prospect of bartering for a wife and then you have polygamy, neither of which fit well in modern thinking.  This is definitely a patriarchal view of things, and we would be wise to recognize that these “family values,” differ from our own (or at least they should).  As you read this story, you have to feel for Leah, who is easily cast off so that the beloved can be had.  With all of this baggage, it is difficult to find something of value to take from the text, except a warning against lifting up the idea of “biblical family values!”  So, with fear and trepidation, I offer the example of Jacob’s perseverance for our consideration.  He takes the long view, knowing that if he works hard for Laban, then he will receive the reward he seeks – the bride of his dreams!  And patience and persistence pay off in the end, at least for Jacob, Rachel and Laban.
Before we go to Matthew 13 with its parables, we must spend time with Paul’s words in Romans 8.  There is so much here.  Paul has packed this brief set of verses with concepts that require deep thought and reflection.  He begins by suggesting that when we don’t know how to pray or know what to pray for, the Spirit will intercede for us through “unexpressed groans.”  We needn’t take this as evidence of the presence of speaking in tongues (prayer language) to get the point.  Paul suggests that the God who searches our hearts knows how the Spirit who indwells us thinks, and therefore the Spirit is well-laced to plead our case, knowing that what the Spirit prays, even if in groans, is consistent with the will of God.  Indeed, before we ever offer prayers, God has known in advance the right course of action.  That course of action is to pursue the good of creation, which includes the inclusion of the Gentiles in the people of God.  Those whom God calls, God makes righteous and glorifies.  This word about election is another idea that trips us up, largely because of the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of predestination, which suggests that God has already made up God’s mind about our destiny, even before we were born.  If you’re in, that’s great.  If not, well that’s the way it goes – God apparently doesn’t need you.  But, such an implication isn’t a necessary reading of this text.  The point is not that God chooses some and not others, but that God has always intended to pursue the good of all creation, so that in calling Abraham (Gen. 18:18), God was beginning the process of reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Cor. 5:19).   

If we understand this sense of purpose (not in the “purpose-driven life” sense of things, where God has already mapped everything out), but the sense of God’s persistence in walking with us to achieve in partnership with us, the desire of God for our reconciliation with God and with creation itself.  Therefore, we can take comfort and confidence in the promise that if God is with us, then nothing will stand in the way of God.  Nothing, not famine or suffering, will keep us from experiencing the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Despite much adversity, there will be victory (we’re more than conquerors).   Take heart then, be patient and persistent, because God will not abandon us.    

As we take up the text from Matthew 13, we hear again descriptions of the realm of God.  The kingdom is like a mustard seed, though it is among the smallest of seeds, it becomes a great bush that shelters the birds and their nests.  And the kingdom is like yeast that is mixed into the flour, leavening it.  Indeed, it is like a treasure that one finds hidden in a field and is reburied, so that the discoverer might buy the field (and have the treasure), but to do this, the discoverer must sell everything to purchase the land.  But the real treasure in this set of brief parables is the message of the pearl of great price.  The merchant is seeking fine pearls and when one of great value is found sells everything so as to have it.  What is living in the realm of God worth to us?  What are we willing to offer up in exchange for something much greater value?  Remember the story of the young man who was asked to give his resources to the poor and follow Jesus – he walked away because he was rich.  How often do we look at the story and go “tsk, tsk” all the while knowing that if Jesus asked the same of us, we would walk away ourselves – maybe muttering something about being saved by grace!!  Oh, and then there’s this parable about the fish caught in the net, which is sorted between good and bad fish.  Once again we have a text that jolts our sensibilities.  We don’t like these words about judgment that inhabit our text.  Especially when the end result is that some get tossed into the fiery furnace.  We must wrestle with these kinds of texts, which either reconfirm preconceived ideas about a wrathful God or don’t fit with our ideas of a God of love.  Of course, we get ourselves into trouble when we take these questions down to individual levels.  Election needn’t speak of our individual destinies, as if everything is written.  Instead, we can think of God’s intention for creation, something God is very intent on seeing come to fruition.  But God isn’t coercive, but desiring to work in partnership with us to achieve this desire – what Bruce Epperly refers to in his book on Process Theology as God’s initial aim.  But a text like Matthew 13, as it focuses on judgment, reminds us that not everything is the same.  There is good and there is evil in the world.  What is evil is not of God, and God will cast it off (not necessarily individual lives but the acts that are not in accordance with God’s vision of the realm of God).  

To pursue the realm of God is to take the long view.  The promise that God made to Abraham was that through his descendants the nations would be blessed.  There were all kinds of twists and turns along the way, at least that’s the way the story goes.  Isaac has issues, as does Jacob.  Joseph finds a way of rescuing his family only to lead them into slavery, which requires a savior to lead them to the promised land, but even that doesn’t work perfectly, and if you follow the story through Jesus to the inclusion of the Gentiles into the people of God (Romans 8), the process remains incomplete.  Yes, the realm of God is a long term project that doesn’t bear fruit over night.  Such a vision doesn’t fit well with our demand for quick gratification, but this does seem to be God’s modus operandi!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Politics of Witness -- A Review

THE POLITICS OF WITNESS:  The Character of the Church in the World. (Areopagus Critical Christian Issues).  By Allan Bevere.  Gonzalez, FL:  Energion Publications, 2011.  Xiv + 69 pages.

            I need to start this review by acknowledging that the book under review appears in a series to which I have contributed a book.  Indeed, the author is co-editor of the series in which this book appears.  The point of the series is to offer relatively brief books that tackle important issues of the day from an orthodox Christian perspective.  That I contributed a volume to the series suggests that the orthodoxy in mind here is a generous one, and not a narrow version. 

            As for the book itself, Allan Bevere, an evangelical United Methodist Pastor with a Ph.D. in biblical studies from the University of Durham, where he studied under James Dunn, and an M.Div., where he came under the influence of Stanley Hauerwas.  The influence of the latter is definitely on display in this book, where Bevere argues that the church must reject the trappings of the world and understand itself as God’s chosen nation, through which a witness of goodness can be shared.  Bevere doesn’t reject the idea of social justice; he just doesn’t believe that it can be obtained by means of any partnership with the nation-state or any political entity beyond the church.  To do so, to enter into a Constantinian bargain, will in the end corrupt the church and endanger its mission.  To be clear, the author doesn’t reject the idea of politics, only the partisan type that is expressed in our current democratic institutions.  His vision takes us back to the pre-Constantinian era where the church existed without political power. 

           Bevere begins his conversation by noting his own journey that has taken him into both political camps – from Focus on the Family to Sojourners, Republican to Democrat – and has found both wanting.  In the end he believes our hope lies in the witness of a faithful remnant that has chosen not to partner with the powers of this world, but “faithfully embody the politics of witness to the nations” (p. xiii).  The starting point in the conversation is the problem of Constantinianism– (the idea that Christians should seek an alliance with the state so as to influence it to enact Christian policies) and Christendom (the idea that a culture of a nation might express vestiges of Christian values.   These two ideas have been the subject of much debate in recent years, especially as it becomes increasingly clear that Christianity is losing its grip on Western Culture.  There is great weariness with a politicized gospel, and so people are either turning inward in their spirituality or rejecting the idea altogether.  But, in Bevere’s view, Jesus offers us a different vision, wherein the church is the new Israel, the nation by which God creates a witness of holiness.  It is from such a remnant perspective that the church has the opportunity to “speak truth to power,” a possibility that in his mind is impossible once the church enters into political alliances or engages in power politics.

           In the course of the book, Bevere outlines what it means for the church to exist as the reconstitution of Israel, and thus fulfill Abraham’s calling to be a blessing to the nations.  This calling is symbolized by the fact that Jesus calls twelve apostles to carry on the mission.  It needs to be noted that at least here, Bevere doesn’t wrestle with the idea of supersessionism, a view that suggests that the church replaces the Jewish people as God’s covenant people.  What he does, however, is extend Jesus’ critique of Israel to modern Christendom.  Having laid out his vision of the church as God’s chosen witness to the world, he discusses the way in which the church experienced a “Constantinian shift.”  Following John Howard Yoder’s critique of Constantinianism, that saw the church join in what appeared to be a mutually beneficial alliance that ended up changing the church more than the state.  Indeed, according to Bevere, after this point the church’s own self-understanding has changed rather radically, so that now God is seen working directly through the empire and the church becomes an invisible entity.  From that point baptism becomes equated with citizenship, and true faith is known only to God.  Ultimately the church loses its identity as the “polis” of God and the church/world distinction is undermined. 
Whereas the church’s task previously was to bear witness to the world as to what God wanted the world to be (the church was to be the church) without resorting to the utilization of the power structures of the dominant culture, now the church utilizes those very power structures to fashion a state that favors and even promotes Christianity.  (p. 23).  
As a result the church must jettison the implications of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom for this world.  Indeed, as understood by Jefferson and Franklin, religion (especially Christianity) has importance for the nation only in the sense that it helps make for virtuous citizens.  Thus, two American founding fathers who were hardly orthodox, if not deist in their faith expressions, become unwitting supporters of Constantinianism. 

            Having laid out his critique of Constantinianism and Christendom, much of which I can embrace, if not all of it, Bevere turns to what he calls his “ecclesial hermeneutic.”  That is, he calls for the creation of a new ecclesial identity that is separate from Christendom.  This requires a critique of both the religious right and the religious left, both of which, he suggests have sought to pressure the nation-state to implement their vision of God’s purpose for the world.   The visions may differ, but the underlying principles, he believes are the same.  This is where the author and I begin to differ, as he takes aim specifically at the religious left, suggesting that they seek to do the same thing as the Religious Right by embracing a civil religion that reflects their theological visions.  While not disagreeing with the need to help the poor and marginalized, the author does not believe that the church should either partner with the state or seek to pressure it to reflect its understanding of God’s purpose.  The prophetic word speaks not to the state, but to Israel and to its reconstitution in the church.  My problem with this analysis is that I don’t see the religious left seeking to impose its views on the nation in the same way as the Religious Right.  I recognize that my own perspective is rooted in my own location on the left side of the political spectrum, but from my vantage point the two sides are very different in intention.   One seeks to impose a “Christian nation” on a pluralistic nation, whereas the other recognizes and celebrates the plurality – but recognizing that pluralism seeks to speak out from its theological perspective, calling on the state to seek the common good.  It roots this witness in theology, but understands that it must respect other perspectives.  I also don’t accept the perspective that if we seek to engage in the political realm that we necessarily become puppets of the state or that the nation-state replaces the church as our community of faith.  It is, of course, a temptation, but need not become a reality.  I may identify with a political perspective, but that does not mean that this political perspective is foremost in my mind.  Rather it is from my own faith perspective that my politics is formed.  Though I do admit that it’s easier to critique the other side than my own!
Having laid out his critique and his alternative hermeneutic, Bevere offers his “A (not so) modest proposal” as to what the politics of witness might look like.  He insists that this proposal doesn’t involve retreat from the world or that it is apolitical.  It is, he says, also not a rejection of the nation-state in totality or of the need to seek the common good, only that this must be “highly qualified.”  He writes:  “the politics of witness does not preclude the church working with the nation on matters that benefit the common good, but that is not the primary political task of the church (p. 52).   Although the author and I differ on our perspectives regarding political involvement, I can affirm this idea.  Indeed, forging alliances with the powers-that-be should not be our primary purpose; the question is how do we pursue the common good (love of neighbor) in an effective manner without being subsumed by the powers.  Where we differ is where we draw the line on this involvement.  For instance, Bevere notes the Health Care Reform law.  Many on the Religious Left pushed for a strong public option and were disappointed at what ended up in the final bill, but of course politics is the art of compromise, and that in the end what we find enacted will not be reflective or our higher aims.  Bevere is right to critique less- than-Christian behavior in the course of the debate, but was the pursuit of a provision of a more equitable health care system not worth the effort?  The idea that churches can provide either for the poor or health care simply underestimates the reality of the problems facing us.  They can play a role, but they can’t cover all needs.  Thus, in my estimation, the church can push the state to be more just and equitable in its actions, even as it seeks to offer the witness of a better way.  

            Finally, regarding the proposal itself, which includes a call to live a simpler life style (no problem here), and a call to refrain from aligning themselves with the political parties.  It is here that I have problems.  We live in a system that is and has been for much of the past two centuries organized along party lines.  I’m really not sure how we can engage as citizens outside the party system.  Indeed, I agree with Parker Palmer in his new book  Healing the Heart of Democracy that the problem isn’t partisanship, but demonizing the other side.  Historically our political parties have allowed people to organize themselves to express a political perspective on issues of importance.  It has often been rough and tumble and not always “Christian,” but in recent years, it has become increasingly nasty.  That is one reason so many have rejected it.  But I’m still not convinced that an alternative way of being citizens of the nation has been found.  To suggest that the church is an alternative nation, still seems to me to be an argument for political separatism.  It may not be of an Amish variety, but I’ve not been convinced that there is an alternative to the present system.  If this is true, then creating a separate polis may not be the best model.  That being said, I appreciate Bevere’s attempt to offer a critique of the dangers present in seeking to use power/pressure tactics to achieve our aim.  There is a danger that the church’s witness can be corrupted by drawing too close to the powers.   If we wish to engage the public square, seeking the common good, then we must be ever aware of these dangers.  Thus, while I don’t agree with where Bevere’s vision takes us, I appreciate the warnings to be ever aware of the temptations to incarnate the spirit of Constantine rather than the spirit of Jesus.