Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Government, Religion and Contraception -- Sightings

The latest church-state flap centers on a government ruling that all health plans, including those offered by the Catholic Church must off access to contraception.  Martin Marty takes up the controversy that focuses on a perceived government intrusion into church affairs, while from a state side it appears to be a matter of justice.  Now, as Marty points out this is largely a Catholic issue -- one might say a Catholic Bishops issue, since apparently 98% of Catholic women ignore church teaching and use birth control.  As an example of this, my wife taught for a number of years in a Catholic school, and she reported how the Catholic teachers were upset that their health coverage didn't include access to contraception.  But, the question raised is important -- where does the line between church and state get drawn?  Take a read, offer your thoughts.  Is this an infringement on church rights or is this an effort to extend justice to all?    

Sightings  1/30/2012  
Government, Religion and Contraception
-- Martin E. Marty

 “To hell with you!” is the message of the government to churches. So reasoned or charged Pittsburgh Catholic bishop David Zubik last week. He was reflecting on new federal rules that would force employers to include access to contraception (and sterilization) in health-insurance coverage for employees. “To hell with you!” is an ever more frequently uttered response to such governmental measures by a mix of citizens who resent having to deal with changes in health-care financing and insurance policies. In the bulls-eye that targets hell, Health and Human Services and its Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, are frequently issued one-way tickets to hell. Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of Phoenix is most vocal and frontal among condemners of those Catholics who more or less side with Sebelius. 
Michael Clancy in Saturday’s The Arizona Republic notes that “The Roman Catholic Church is the only significant denomination opposed to contraception.” We could find others, depending on how one defines “significant.” But in the press, it has become a Catholic issue, a designation that not all people in politics and government cherish. Some ponder: why is it a Catholic issue if, as we read in numerous polls, only two percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age oppose and do not use contraceptives? 
Can we start over in the civil controversy over contraception? Before hell gets too crowded we might do well to get the hell out of here, meaning out of the current debates, the first inspired by Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and now by the HHS ruling. One may rue Bishop Olmsted’s approach to these controversial issues and still agree with him that much is at stake in what he calls an “alarming and serious matter.” It “impacts the church in the United States and threatens the fundamental right to religious liberty.” Must it? 
David Skeel in The Wall Street Journal was accurate in observing that after several decades in which church/state issues had dealt chiefly with religious symbols and practices in the public square, in the coming decade the fights and uncertainties will have to do with the ways in which federal and state regulations would inject government into religious affairs. Such issues are easily exploited by political factions and interests on all sides, but they cannot easily be wished away. Did the government in the current case act brutally, as its opponents claim? Or is the government simply seeking to help assure justice to citizens of all religious and non-religious sorts? 
Citizens of all sorts? The Arizona Republic quotes Jan Olav Flaaten, the Lutheran pastor who directs the Arizona Ecumenical Council, who observes that “most religious groups are not concerned that the government overstretches in church-state relations” on this front.  He added that he could think of no other group than Catholics that had issues with contraception.” In most surveys that we have seen, about 98 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age tell the poll-taker that they use contraceptive birth control devices and pills, whatever official church teaching and the bishops may say. The Catholic population is very little different from the rest of the population. Still, Catholic consciences and power have to be reckoned with. Can the controversy get off to a better start?

David Skeel, “On Religious Freedom, Years of Battles Ahead,” The Wall Street Journal, January 27, 2012.

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.


In this month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum Jonathan Wyn Schofer explores both how late ancient rabbinic narratives understand human vulnerability in relation to the environment, and the ethical instruction inspired by this understanding. Schofer proposes that "contemporary environmental ethics can learn much from considering these perhaps exotic rituals and stories," which "portray people as entrenched in natural processes."


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

Monday, January 30, 2012

An Inclusive Gospel -- What would it mean for the church?

9 At noon on the following day, as their journey brought them close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted to eat. While others were preparing the meal, he had a visionary experience. 11 He saw heaven opened up and something like a large linen sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. 12 Inside the sheet were all kinds of four-legged animals, reptiles, and wild birds. 13 A voice told him, “Get up, Peter! Kill and eat!” 
 14 Peter exclaimed, “Absolutely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
 15 The voice spoke a second time, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”  (Acts 10:9-15 Common English Bible.)
In this passage of scripture, Peter has a vision that will expand his understanding of God's realm.  It is a vision that opens up the gospel (the Good News of God's reign) to Gentiles.  Those who had been deemed unclean, were now clean.

The Christian Church (broadly speaking) has long struggled with what it means to be inclusive.  We struggle with boundary issues -- just like every religious community.  I think that there have been times when the church, or parts of the church, have been on the right side of the question and many times when it has not been.

I want to risk the interpretive rules for a moment by thinking out loud what it means for the church to be a truly inclusive community without loosing its core principles and ideals.  What have we declared unclean that God has perhaps, through the Spirit, declared clean?

There are a number of areas where we struggle with a changes in the way the world exists.  Here are some areas we must examine as people of faith:
  • Our relationships with people of other faith traditions.  Where do they stand in our estimation and our perception of God's estimation.  I have long been involved in interfaith work and attended last night a special event in Detroit called the World Sabbath for Religious Reconciliation.  How do we engage in this work?
  • I'm reading a wonderful book by Amos Yong called  The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.  He asks us to consider how the church can be truly inclusive of those who are disabled -- whether this physical, emotional, or intellectual.  We don't have a very good record on this, and its not just making sure we have ADA compliant facilities -- it's the way we think and speak of people whom society deems less able to participate fully in the community.
  • And of course there is the question of gender.  There are still too many places in the church where women are hindered from using their gifts for the glory of God.
  • And then the ever controversial issue of including those who persons who are Gay and Lesbian.  Society is changing.  There is greater acceptance of the presence of homosexuals in our communities, but there is still a stigma.  There are still barriers.  But do we hear a word from the Spirit of God, speaking to us, as the Spirit spoke to Peter, inviting us to consider persons that have traditionally been excluded as fully included in the body of Christ?  That is the word I have been hearing for some time. And I'm seeing others also hear this vision.  I believe my congregation is seeing this vision.   
How is God expanding your vision of inclusion?  I realize that not everyone is at the same place.  But what do we hear from this passage from the Book of Acts?  What is it saying to us in this time and place?   How might we expand the circle of inclusion?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is Happening? A Sermon

Mark 1:21-28

Jesus walks into the synagogue at Capernaum, immediately heads to the pulpit, and without so much as asking for permission from the synagogue leaders,  starts preaching.  After that, the place falls into chaos.  

That’s because, no sooner had Jesus started preaching, when suddenly, a man stood up in the sanctuary, and started shouting Jesus.  The man, whom Mark says was possessed by an evil spirit, screamed at Jesus, demanding to know what Jesus would do with “us?”    Are you going to destroy us?  After all, “I know who you are.”  Yes, “you are the holy one of God.”

   Picture yourself in such a congregation.  How would you have responded to all of this commotion?  Would you have been amazed and shaken, as Mark suggests was the case for this congregation?  I expect that like us, this congregation liked things to be done “decently and in order.”  What would you make of both the preacher and the respondent to this preacher?  Would you call the police?

As Mark tells the story, the congregation was first amazed at Jesus’ authoritative teaching, contrasting his teaching with that of the religious leaders.  In hearing this story we must be careful not to read into it an anti-Jewish bias, while recognizing in Jesus a message that is both prophetic and challenging to our own religious and cultural sensibilities.  

There is in this story, a question posed to us – who is this person and how should I respond?    

Although they were amazed at the teaching, they were also shaken by the encounter with the man possessed with evil spirits.  They watch breathlessly, as Jesus demonstrates his authority over the demon by “harshly” demanding that the spirits be silent and then to come out of the man.  We’re told that at that moment, the evil spirit shook the host and with a scream left the man’s body. 

As the people in this congregation, people like you and like me, tried to make sense of the scene, they asked a question: “What’s this?”  What’s happening here?   Surely, we would be asking the same kinds of questions!

Then Mark writes: “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”  Even without Facebook and Twitter, news spread quickly about this new teacher.    

The question of the hour wasn’t just:  What happened here?   A more important question was: Who is this person who has turned everything upside down?   How would you have responded to him and the chaos that he stirred up in that congregation?   What would you be thinking?

We might not be the most formal congregation in the world, but we like things done decently and in order.  That’s why we have a bulletin that lays out the service so that everyone knows where they need to be and do at the appropriate moment.  There’s a time for prayer and a time for song, a time for preaching and a time to gather at the table.  Just so everyone knows their place, the names of the person doing each job is noted.   Sometimes we make adjustments, but there is still a sense of order to our responses to the needs of the moment.  We’re not used to the kind of commotion Jesus caused in that congregation.  

What would happen here if some somebody walked in off the street and headed to the front, took the microphone – probably from the preacher – and starting talking – without permission?   I know I’d be a bit concerned, and I expect the Elders might be  concerned as well.  But then to complicate things, what if someone got into a frenzy, stood up, and started arguing with this strange preacher?   Wouldn’t we also ask the question: “What’s this?”  

I expect that this story could raise a deeper question in our hearts and minds.  As we ask the question: Who is Jesus?  We also ask a related question: What does this Jesus who always seems to be disturbing the status quo want from me?   

Albert Schweitzer, a famous doctor, missionary, organist, and bible scholar, wrote a book more than a century ago about the “search for the historical Jesus.”  He concluded that at the end of the search, the people seeking after the historical Jesus end up looking down into a well and seeing their own reflection.  When they asked who Jesus was, they ended up with a person who looked just like them and thought just like them.  In the end this “historical Jesus” served to validate their own ideas and ideologies.  

So, is Jesus nothing more than a reflection of our own imaginations?   

Last Sunday a group of us went to the DIA and took in the “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit.  Although the exhibit focused on Rembrandt’s paintings of Jesus, the exhibit placed his perspectives in the context of other artistic creations.   

What stood out for me was the revelation that Rembrandt used a young Sephardic Jew living in Amsterdam as his model for Jesus.  This made him unique, because most artists of that day portrayed Jesus as a good northern European man.  This Euro-centric vision of Jesus can be seen in the picture on our bulletin this morning.  For most  Europeans then, and probably most European and American Christians today, Jesus looks like  a good blue-eyed blonde European male – with long hair and a beard!  Rembrandt, however, turned things upside-down by trying to portray Jesus in a way that reflected his Jewish humanity.  

So, who is the real Jesus?  How does he affect the way you live and think?  Does he make you uncomfortable, as he made the attendees of this synagogue?   Does he challenge your sense of identity?  How do you experience his call to discipleship?  Would you be willing to drop everything, like Andrew and Simon, James and John, and follow him on a journey that often is uncomfortable and challenging?

In an earlier presidential election cycle, a candidate said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher.  Unfortunately, no one asked him why Jesus was his favorite teacher of wisdom.  What was it about Jesus that informed his world view?   What difference would the teachings of Jesus make in the way he would lead the nation?  

Many of us have a rather domesticated view of Jesus.  He’s our savior and our friend, but not much more.  We tend to ignore what Peter Gomes,  the late chaplain at Harvard, called “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus.”  We know that the gospel must have been scandalous to some, because it upset enough people, that Jesus ended up dying on a cross.     But, what is it about the gospel that can be truly scandalous? 

In Mark, the scandal begins here, in the synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus’ teaching and actions amaze and shakes up the people.   In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in his home congregation, and causes such a stir that they the people not only chase him out of the synagogue, but they also try to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30).  

So, who is this Jesus, who causes such a scandal? 

Many years ago, back when I was but a youth, The Doobie Brothers had a hit song.   Maybe you remember it – “Jesus is Just alright with me.”  Is Jesus just all right?  Is he nothing more than a domesticated savior whom I turn to when I need him, but who I ignore the rest of the time?  Is he nothing more than a religious symbol that is useful in supporting an agenda?  Or is his message of God’s realm, a message that is expressed in his words and in his actions, something that changes the way we look at life and live our lives in this world?

     Yes, who is this Jesus?  And when he steps into our midst, what happens to us and to our world?   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2012

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Hyphenateds -- A review

THE HYPHENATEDS: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.  Edited by Phil Snider; Foreword by Phyllis Tickle.  St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2011.  Xxii + 162 pages.

         It’s no secret that Mainline Protestantism has experienced significant decline over the past fifty years.  If you’ve been to a typical Mainline church you’ll likely notice that those present are relatively order than the general population.  Many pundits have put this branch of the Christian community on a death watch.  Although the theology and social views (especially on issues such as homosexuality) of this brand of Christianity would seem to position it well to attract younger generations (GenX and Millennials), such has not been the case.   Despite attempts to contemporize worship and become less traditional, these churches (my church) continue to struggle. 

Despite the apparent downward trend, there are signs of hope springing up here and there.   This doesn’t mean that the present rate of decline won’t continue for the foreseeable future (with such a large percentage of membership being over 65 this is inevitable), but not all is gloom and doom.  There are examples of new and interesting forms of church life emerging.  These forms of Christian community track with the theology and even some of the traditions of existing Mainline Christianity, but they seem to be metamorphosing into new forms and expressions that may in the end look very different from what we know as Mainline Protestantism today. 

                Phil Snider, a Disciples of Christ pastor, with Emergent inclinations has gathered together a set of essays written by other Emergent-inclined Mainliners.  The Emergent Church movement had its birth among younger evangelicals who found the theological and social constraints of evangelicalism problematic.  As they “moved left,” they began to encounter younger Mainline Protestants who also were on a journey toward something new and engaging.  They are not, Snider insists, “abandoning the traditions that have shaped them; rather they are attempting to faithfully appropriate their beloved traditions in new and innovative ways.”  They are, he suggests, seeking to retradition the church so that new life can emerge (p. xvi) As a result of these conversations a new breed of Mainliner developed – a hyphenated Emergent-Mainliner.   Thus we have Presby-mergents, Luther-mergents, [D]mergents, Angli-mergents, and more.
                The book, which carries a foreword by Phyllis Tickle and an afterword from Doug Pagitt, contains essays from thirteen Emergent Mainliners.   In their essays they express appreciation for their varied traditions, hopes for a new way of being church, anger at the way church is practiced, and critique.   Some of the writers, including Carol Howard Merritt and Nadia Bolz-Weber are widely known, while other names may be new to many readers.  There will be essays that one finds resonating, and others that do not.  Each reader may respond differently to the perspective of a given author. 

                In my reading I found several of the essays especially poignant.  The first essay of the book is written by Bolz-Weber, an Emergent Lutheran pasturing in Denver, and carries the title “innovating with integrity.”  She expresses the desire of many Mainliners who wish to push boundaries, to innovate, but wish to remain true to the core values and theologies of their tradition.  She writes:
The core holds the history, the tradition, and the money.  It includes the ecclesial structures, the traditional churches that have existed for generations . . . The innovative edges then are emerging churches, multicultural ministries, and any ministry being established outside the structure of the ELCA, especially by seminaries and laity in response to their context.  (p. 5)
The question that flows from this continuum of core and innovative edge is whether there is sufficient respect at both ends, but especially at the core, for the other.  Are the voices of the Millennial Generation, for instance, being heard?  In a similar fashion, Stephanie Sellers, an Episcopalian, raises the question of how to balance freedom and order in a church that has valued tradition and order.  Going forward, however, how does it allow sufficient freedom to contextualize itself so as to be present in and with a new generation?

                Sometimes structures, which have served church and clergy well, have conspired to shut down innovation.  Elaine Heath, a United Methodist, notes that the principles of guaranteed appointments have made it difficult for Methodists to engage in the kind of bi-vocational ministries that allow for a more incarnational presence.   You can serve as a bi-vocational pastor, but such an appointment does not allow one to have the same voting privileges as full-time clergy (ordained elders), or to serve as a district superintendent or bishop. 
So, if you are an innovative, missional, creative, bivocational local pastor who is good at planting and leading emerging faith communities on the margins of society, you will never become a district superintendent, never become a bishop, and never be able to offer to the ailing UMC at large the ecclesiological medicine it needs in order to become healthy again. (p. 33)
There is in this vein at times deep anger at the way the structures are laid out and how they may conspire against innovation and even radical Christianity – as seen in Christopher Rodkey’s “Satan in the Suburbs,” which offers what seemed to me to be a diatribe against the church and its use of ordination to control. 

                Some of the essays, such as Carol Howard Merritt’s explore the cultural terrain of emergent/mainline ministry, while Matt Gallion, a graduate student in religious studies explores postmodern philosophy, which has been a key component of the emergent conversation.  Gallion calls on emergent Mainliners to face the truth that if it is to “radically enact or incarnate transformative change – as it purportedly desires to do – then it will have to face its overwhelming similarities to classical liberalism and move beyond them” (p. 89). 

                These essays that I’ve highlighted offer a taste of what can be found in this very important book for the Mainline Protestant church.    I didn’t agree everything I read and I didn’t find equal value in every essay.  That is to be expected from a collection of essays.  However, this is, as Doug Pagitt suggests, a family conversation.  The idea of being hyphenated reminds us that there is often discomfort in bringing together different families, to form a new family identity.   Pagitt writes of the feeling among many Mainliners attracted to the Emergent Conversation – their family of origin is too important to let go of the name.
This is, in my opinion, where the hyphenateds of the emerging church world find themselves.  They recognize they are in a new relationship, but they also know where they came from.  They want to be fully in the emerging family, but as a product of another family.  (p. 156).
                How all of this will work out is unknown.  Will one of the family names get dropped over time, or will this new hyphenated identity enrich the broader Christian conversation?  As Matt Gallion notes, this new identity must be more than simply repackaging traditional liberalism.  It can’t be another gimmick to grow a dying church.  It must contribute something of value to the realm of God. 

One thing that can be said for the convergence of the emergent church movement, which has evangelical origins, and the Mainline, is that the ethnic and gender representation has been broadened.   One of the criticisms of many Emergent gatherings is that the stage is dominated by white males.  In this conversation, a significant portion of the contributors are women (six of thirteen), some of whom are persons of color. 

As a Mainline Pastor who has been engaged in this conversation, though I am of a generation older than most of the participants, I am grateful to Phil Snider and to Chalice Press, for making this volume available to the church.  May it stir a conversation that can lead to transformation of the church so that it becomes flexible and innovative enough to engage the world that exists and will exist, even as it seeks to be true to its core. 

War Horse and Red Tails -- Thoughts on 2 War Movies

On back to back Fridays, Cheryl and I took in a movie.  We saw War Horse a week ago and then yesterday we went to see Red Tails.  Both are war movies, though they focus on two different wars.  Both are moving and well made movies.  Both have famous producers/directors who have made blockbuster movies -- Spielberg and Lucas.  The two movies tell different sides of the story of wars.

When we went to see War Horse, we actually thought we would see Sherlock Holmes, but I had mixed up the times, and so we "accidentally" saw War Horse.  It was much different than I expected, and I was deeply moved by the story that focuses on a horse and his master.  Joey is a beautiful horse, fit for racing, but ends up owned by a family that needs a plow horse.  When the family suffers financial hardship, Joey is sold to the military, and becomes the cavalry horse for a British officer.  We see the war essentially through the eyes of Joey, who becomes the property, at least momentarily of a British officer, a couple of young German soldiers, a young French girl, then again the German army (pulling massive guns), and then miraculously is saved from "no-man's land" between the German and British trenches by the shared efforts of a British and a German soldier.  In the end the horse ends up with the British, and ultimately to Albert, his original master, who is now a soldier.  It is a story of loyalty, bravery, and serves as a witness against the glory of war.

I had focused on the loyalty angle as I was watching the movie, but reading a reflection on the movie by Psychologist Richard Beck, I was introduced to another side of the story.  As Beck points out in the course of the movie, the lines between "us" and "them" are blurred.  Joey becomes the symbol, Beck suggests, of the "war horse" that all participants become.

In all this we begin to see that Joey isn't the only warhorse in the film. Joey is a symbol of something much darker. The first warhorse in the film is actually Albert's father. And Albert soon follows.
Everyone, German and British alike, is found to be a "warhorse." And we leave the film thinking that the real enemy isn't the man in the other trench.
We're all just warhorses, we come to realize. The real enemy is war itself.

Red Tails offers a different kind of story.  War isn't the enemy, necessarily, in this movie.  Instead, the enemy is prejudice.  This is the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, an all-black fighter wing that distinguished itself with gallantry and success during World War II.  At a time when the U.S. Military still considered African Americans unfit for duty, these men proved themselves to be brave and competent, becoming one of the most decorated units in the Army Air Corp.  

Red Tails is the story of highly skilled and determined men who are fighting for a nation that refuses to recognize their full humanity.  This is not just the story of a war, but about a struggle for dignity.  And in the course of the movie, we see how this struggle emboldens, empowers, and yes, liberates young men from the bonds of an American culture that was then deeply entrenched with bigotry.  And ultimately, it is the efforts of these young men that lead Harry Truman to desegregate the military, which leads ultimately to the process of desegregation in America.   The Red Tails not only helped win a war, they helped set in motion societal changes that changed the face of America. 

You will likely watch these two movies with different sets of lenses.  One calls us to recognize the horror that is war.  The second movie calls us to recognize that military service often calls forth from human beings their best, and their efforts can have a salutary effect on humanity.  War remains hell, but out of the pit of hell comes something good.  

After watching both movies, we must recognize that war remains with us, and that the opposing sides in these conflicts -- the soldiers in the trenches -- are human beings.  We must also recognize that as much as the efforts of these young men served to change the way Americans understood race, bigotry remains part of our national fabric.    Thus, gratitude must be expressed to Spielberg and Lucas, people who know how to entertain us, for telling stories that challenge heart and mind.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Reading the Common English Bible

In 2011 we observed the 400th anniversary of the Authorized or King James Version of the Bible.  The KJV reigned supreme for more than 300 years, with true challengers emerging only in the mid-20th century, as new understandings of translation theory and new textual discoveries began to make themselves felt.  There are a few folks left that not only prize the KJV, but hold tightly to its authoritative status.  It's as if good old King James I was God incarnate.  But even most conservative Christians today embrace modern translations.

It's possible that we've reached the point of translation saturation, but new translations continue to emerge, giving the reader of Scripture more and more choices.  For the past twenty years or so, I've been using the New Revised Standard Version.  It is a well-attested scholarly translation that takes into consideration contemporary concerns about gender inclusion.  It retains a strong sense of formality that resonates well when read publicly, but the success of the New International Version has pointed to the need for a translation that is even more contemporary in its feel, while being more reflective of the ethos of the Mainline Protestant community.  It is good to remember that theology does influence translation!

For this reason the publication of the Common English Bible is a welcome addition.  It is accessible while seeking to steer close to the original texts.  I have been using the New Testament for more than a year, and more recently had the opportunity to start using the Old Testament.  I'm not a biblical scholar in the professional sense, so those more adept with the languages can offer their own assessment, but I find this to be a most excellent text.  

From the website we learn that the purpose of this Translation is as follows:

The Common English Bible is not simply a revision or update of an existing translation. It is a bold new translation designed to meet the needs of Christians as they work to build a strong and meaningful relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  
A key goal of the translation team was to make the Bible accessible to a broad range of people; it’s written at a comfortable level for over half of all English readers. As the translators did their work, reading specialists working with seventy-seven reading groups from more than a dozen denominations review the texts to ensure a smooth and natural reading experience. Easy readability can enhance church worship and participation, and personal Bible study. It also encourages children and youth to discover the Bible for themselves, perhaps for the very first time. 
The translators and the team of readers that offered response to the translation before publication straddles a cross-section of denominational traditions.  This cross-section is seen in the publishers that cooperated in its production:   

The Common English Bible Committee meets periodically and consists of denominational publishers from the following denominations: Disciples of Christ (Chalice Press); Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (Westminster John Knox Press); Episcopal Church (Church Publishing Inc); United Church of Christ (Pilgrim Press); and United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press). Abingdon Press is the sales distribution partner for the CEB.
As part of an ongoing CEB Blog Tour, of which I've been a participant, the publishers of the Common English Bible have empowered bloggers to offer a free Bible to readers.  I've been remiss in making the offer of late, so if you're interested -- give your name in the comments and I'll be in touch and we can pass on the information to the CEB folks!

You can, of course, get a copy from Amazon as well -- just follow this link:  
CEB Common English Thinline Bible Bonded EcoLeather Burgundy

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Hearing God's Message -- A Lectionary Reflection

Hearing God’s Message

            How does one know the voice of God?  What helps one discern when God is speaking and when God isn’t?  These are important questions, as people of faith desire to know what God is up to and what God would have us do.  We needn’t embrace a deterministic world view to concern ourselves with such questions, for in our prayers we do desire to enter into conversation with God.  Sometimes we have difficulty with this need because the voice we hear seems to be different from what we expect. 

Our ability to hear God’s voice and sense God’s presence is that we now live in a de-enchanted world – our view of the world, in the words of Rudolph Bultmann, has been demythologized.  It has been laid bare and we find it difficult to find underlying meaning and purpose.  It appears to many people, that we are alone in this world.   It’s true that there are still remnants of an older worldview that clings to extreme supernaturalist views of the world, but that world continues to shrink. 

We want to believe, with the ad writers of the United Church of Christ that “God Still Speaks,” but how will we hear that voice?  How will we recognize the prophet that arises from our midst so that we might heed that voice?  Will we be amazed and even disturbed by the words and actions of those who bring this word into our midst, a word that often unsettles the status quo? 

            With these questions in mind we come to the lectionary texts for this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany.  The Gospel of Mark guides our journey, seeking to reveal to us a Jesus that we sometimes can’t get our heads around.  As the title of a Peter Gomes book puts it – the Gospel of Jesus is often scandalous.  So, as we tend to these texts, from Deuteronomy, from 1 Corinthians, and from the Gospel of Mark, how do they help us hear the message of God? 

            The reading from Deuteronomy raises an interesting point.  According to this text, the people have asked Moses to ask God to provide them a prophet, a spokesperson, once Moses is gone, so that they can hear the message of God without having to risk encountering God face to face.  They find it difficult to listen to God’s voice and look at the fire of God.  It has become apparent to them that to encounter God “face to face” is too overwhelming.  To do so would lead to their deaths.  Do we feel the same way?  Do we have this striking sense of God’s presence that is so overwhelming that we shrink back, or is ours a domesticated God, one that is easily handled?  Are we feeling the need for a mediator?  Or can we handle it on our own?   If we live in a de-enchanted world with a demythologized gospel, then do we have anything to fear from being in the presence of God?   Have we relegated God to being the “man upstairs,” a sort of feeble grandpa who we trot out on special occasions or entreat when we need a few bucks to tide us over?  Sometimes it seems as if there is no fear of staying too long in the presence of God, and I wonder – is this a good thing?    

            The good news for the Israelites is that the LORD God hears their pleas and promises a prophet who will arise from among the people.  This person will receive the words of God and tell the people what God had commanded.  Anyone who doesn’t heed this word will be held accountable.  There is a catch, however, as God will hold accountable the person who “arrogantly speaks a word in my name that I haven’t commanded him to speak.”  In other words, choosing to speak on behalf of God is a dangerous calling – be sure you are hearing correctly! 

            The Corinthian letters are, I believe, important voices in the modern world.  They speak to a church living in a deeply pluralistic setting.  Paul must help them navigate their context.  We may not embrace all the we find here, but it is a reminder that we live in a world full of diverse voices, not all of which are in sync with the desires and purposes of God.   In this particular passage, Paul speaks to Christians who believe that they have reached the pinnacle of spirituality.  They believe they have sufficient knowledge (gnosis) to make them immune from any temptation to follow after competing voices.  Paul speaks of this “knowledge” as leading to arrogance, an arrogance that stands contrary to the love that is God.  In this situation, the issue is eating meat sacrificed to idols.  These Christians seem to have demythologized their context, and since the best meat in town is to be found at the local temples, why not dine there?   After all, these so-called gods are empty idols.  They have embraced the message that there is but one God, and therefore all other “gods” are mere idols.  Paul’s view is a bit less de-enchanted.  Yes, there is but one God, and these idols, are mere statues, but there are spiritual realities that they need to take into account.  But more importantly, they need to be aware of their brothers and sisters whose world view is much less de-enchanted.  For them to dine at the Temple could lead them into worshiping this other deities, leading them away from their encounter with God through Christ. 

Paul acknowledges that knowledge (gnosis) is good, but knowledge can puff up with disastrous consequences.  Therefore, focus instead on love of your brother and sister who may not be as “strong” as you are.  Recognize that your freedom could cause them to stumble.  Is that steak so delicious that you feel it necessary to destroy their faith to have a taste?  What if you’re freedom leads some of your brothers and sisters to worship false gods?  Is it worth it?  Paul suggests that such arrogance is a sin against Christ, because it is a sin against one’s brother or sister.  Thus, Paul decides that if food causes the downfall of a brother or sister then he won’t eat meat again. 

            This is an important text because it affirms the importance of community.  I should take into account my sister or my brother in the faith when I choose to act.  My freedom in Christ is circumscribed by my love of neighbor.  Having said this, I need to acknowledge the danger of legalism.  Unfortunately, I’ve seen too many examples of people using this text to limit freedoms.  Don’t have a beer; don’t go to a movie, etc.  So, freedom should be circumscribed by love, but freedom should not be circumscribed by legalism.  I realize that in my current context as pastor of a Mainline Protestant church, my situation is different than it was years ago when I was involved in a rather conservative Pentecostal context.  But that experience is a reminder that legalism is also a threat to our ability to hear the voice of God.  But, the key here is to keep our own behavior formed by love of neighbor.

            Finally we come to Jesus’ visit, with his disciples, to the synagogue at Capernaum.  Something to note here is the use of adverbs like immediately and suddenly.  Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry is an active one.  Jesus doesn’t saunter up to the synagogue and have a seat; instead he enters the synagogue immediately and begins to teach.  And events don’t just emerge slowly, they happen suddenly, such as when a person with an evil spirit stands up in the synagogue and screams at Jesus – accusing him of coming to destroy the demonic spirits.  

            Such is the nature of this encounter that the people are amazed and shaken.  Wouldn’t you be in a state of shock if someone came to church and just strode up to the pulpit and began preaching?   As a pastor, I’d surely ask some questions about why a person would do such a thing.  I don’t care if this preacher teaches with such authority that the people are amazed – there’s such a thing as decency and order.  It would be nice if this preacher would give me a chance to sit down and discuss when and where this conversation should take place. 

Added to this preacher breaking into the service and demanding the pulpit, you have the additional frenzy caused by the demoniac who stands up and shouts at Jesus.   Yes, everyone would be in shock.

            But the story is complex.  Jesus has come to the synagogue and has begun teaching, but the demons not only fear being destroyed, but they inadvertently identify Jesus – you are the holy of God, they declare.  When Jesus hears their affirmation, he silences them.   There’s something odd about Jesus’ power encounters in Mark – he’s not eager to receive the witness of these entities.  And yet, this encounter serves to affirm the message – there’s something unique about Jesus.  He has a new teaching – the gospel of the reign of God – but he also has power over unclean spirits.    As you would expect, the news spreads quickly.  Soon the entire region of Galilee has heard the news.  There is a new prophet in town, and he seems to have the power of God within him. 

            As we hear this text, it calls forth from us a response:   Who is this person?   What is he? What do I make of him?  It was a question asked then and it’s again being asked.  We in the Mainline Protestant community, especially those of us engaged in interfaith work, this question is central.  Historic Christian teaching insists that Jesus is the unique revelation of God.  No one comes to the father, except through Jesus.  There are increasing numbers of people in the church today who are uncomfortable not only with an exclusivist message, but even one centered on Jesus.  So, who is Jesus?  How does he speak and embody the realm of God for us?

            As we ask these questions about Jesus, as they are raised by the text, we need to acknowledge that there is present in this passage the possibility of anti-Jewish sentiment.   Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes (legal experts – CEB).  And there’s the presence of the demoniac in the synagogue.  Yes, we need to be wary of expressing perspectives that would denigrate the Jewish people, even as we seek to hear God’s voice in the person and message of Jesus of Nazareth.

            As we listen for God’s voice this Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, what are you hearing?  Is it a surprising message?  A challenging one?  Does it make you feel uncomfortable?   

Read the texts for the week from  the CEB, click on texts above.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Knowledge and the Danger of Arrogance

 1 Now concerning meat that has been sacrificed to a false god: we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge makes people arrogant, but love builds people up. 2 If anyone thinks they know something, they don’t yet know as much as they should know. 3 But if someone loves God, then they are known by God.  (1 Corinthians 8:1-3 -- Common English Bible.)
I'm not preaching on this text from 1 Corinthians 8 this Sunday (it is the lectionary selection from the Epistles), but I thought it interesting for a time like this.  Paul isn't discounting education, which is important.  The knowledge that he speaks of here is one that leads to arrogance -- knowledge that puffs up, leading one to believe that one is better than the other. 

I'm hesitant to bring up a text like this at a time when there is political gain to be gotten from attacking education and knowledge -- especially scientific knowledge.  There is political gain from misrepresenting history.  But despite the hazards, I think it is important to hear this word about arrogance, especially during a political season.  

 As you ponder this text, here this word from Kenyatta Gilbert concerning Paul's admonition:
The person who loves God discovers a truth:  knowledge corrupts if not chastened by humility. [In Ron Allen, et al., ed. Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B, p. 85]


A Call to Teamwork -- by the President

Last night's Presidential State of the Union laid out a laundry list of accomplishments and and things yet to be done.  The President spoke of foreign policy victories and economic improvements at home.  Things aren't "good" but they're getting better.  No, not everyone is feeling it yet, but all the markers suggest slow and steady improvement -- despite partisan gridlock.  The President called for investment in the national infrastructure and pursuit of clean energy.  He suggested that the rich could pay more in taxes so that others could have a fairer shake (that didn't go over well with the opposition).  

Now, I'm not going to rehearse the State of the Union Address, though I thought it was an excellent speech.  Yes, it was a political speech -- most are and this is the beginning of a lengthy election year -- but it was also an address to the nation, a call to action on behalf of the common good.   

What I do want to pick up on was the call to being a team.  The President suggested that if America works together nothing can stop it's success.  Whatever your view of war and the military, something in the President's analogy about team work exhibited by the military has to resonate.  

These achievements are a testament to the courage, selflessness and teamwork of America’s Armed Forces.  At a time when too many of our institutions have let us down, they exceed all expectations.  They’re not consumed with personal ambition.  They don’t obsess over their differences.  They focus on the mission at hand.  They work together.  
Imagine what we could accomplish if we followed their example.  (Applause.)  Think about the America within our reach:  A country that leads the world in educating its people.  An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs.  A future where we’re in control of our own energy, and our security and prosperity aren’t so tied to unstable parts of the world.  An economy built to last, where hard work pays off, and responsibility is rewarded.

One of the things the President reminded us of was that no who is successful got there on his or her own.  Somewhere along the way someone, likely many someones, were there to help.  And very likely, the government played a role.   

Those of us who watch team sports know that a team can have the best player in the world, but without a strong team that player won't truly succeed.   Tom Brady is a great QB, but without good receivers and a strong offensive line, he'd be nobody.  Tim Lincecum went 13-14 last year despite posting one of the best ERA's in the National League.  Why so many losses?  The team didn't score runs.  Most of those losses came in games where the Giants scored one or fewer runs.  Team work is essential.

The President pointed to the troops and commended them for their dedication and their team work -- and suggested we might benefit as a nation by following their example.  Indeed, the church could learn from following their example.  

Teamwork -- it is indispensable for an athletic team, for church, for nation.  Does it mean we all agree?  No. But it does mean that we agree to work together for the common good.  It means that we learn to listen to each other.  It means we put the other first by loving one's neighbor as one's self.  

Whether we agree on all the particulars of the President's speech, may we agree to come together to work for the good of all.  Oh, I'm not naive enough to believe that it will happen over night, but can't we begin to work together, even at the edges?  

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Politics -- What should we do with it?

It's a political season.  Last night there was another debate -- number 18 with a myriad more to come.  I don't watch them, the analysis is often more interesting and revealing.  What is most interesting to read are the fact checkers.  The misstatements are fast and furious.  Are they intentional?  Possibly.  Are the result of ignorance of the facts?  Possibly.

Tonight the President will give his State of the Union Address.  Will it have a political tone to it?  Of course, it's an election year and this is one of the few moments that he has to present his side of things.  

Will everyone lay down their arms and welcome one another in a new bi-partisan fervor that will put the country first?  Hardly.  The right will find things they hate, even if the President re-gifts to them one of their own positions.  Will the left find things to hate?  Of course -- it would be nothing new.

Is governing getting more difficult?  Indeed!

We live in an age of instant communication and analysis.  Opinions sprout long before the facts get analyzed.  Rumors spread and take on a life of their own.  As wonderful as social media is, it has its limitations and drawbacks.

Politics is seen as dirty business, which is unfortunate.  Politics is the way in which a democratic society functions.  It involves organization and sharing of ideas.  But, the system isn't working.  In fact, some reforms have made things worse.  I'll give you an example:  Earmarks.

People hate earmarks, but earmarks help the system work.   Now that we've essentially eliminated them, there are no incentives to get anything done.  All we can do is stonewall and filibuster.  There is little leverage in the system, and thus the system is grinding to a halt.  I have no way of exchanging my support for your venture, because you have nothing to give me in exchange.  I need a bridge, you need money for a new school in the inner-city.  How do we make this work?

Term limits is another reform gone bad.  Because term limits breed inexperience into the system, someone picks up the slack of experience -- lobbyists.  You see, by the time a person has gained enough experience to understand the way the system works, they're term-limited out.  But, they have learned enough to be dangerous outside the system.  Corporations and other entities wanting to influence the system know where to go to influence legislation -- former legislators needing a job.

 Politics isn't a necessary evil, it is the foundation of a free society.  

So, I want to leave this discussion -- or open it up -- with these words on what democracy needs, as posited by Parker Palmer:

Democracy needs and, at its best, breeds people who have minds of their own.  Individual entrepreneurship and personal creativity have given rise to advances in everything from business to technology to the arts.  Independent thinking can also help get the ship of state back on course when ideological conformism leads us astray.  And yet anyone who does not understand that the self is interdependent with others does not understand what it takes to be entrepreneurial, creative, and political, let alone what it means to be human.     [Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, p. 66].  
Think on these things during this political season!

Monday, January 23, 2012

American Divide -- Sightings

Why is America so divided?  Why is the 99% falling so far behind the 1%?  Why is the church losing ground?  Martin Marty takes up the critique of our contemporary situation by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute.  Murray suggests that social policy that emerged in the 1960s has lead to a breakdown in society and development of a "cultural inequality."  There may be some truth in what he says, even if there is much that is debatable -- at least from what I read in the WSJ article Marty points us to.  I'd like to invite you to take a look, and offer your thoughts -- what is the cause of the divide?

Sightings  1/23/2012

American Divide
-- Martin E. Marty

Next week Crown Forum will publish Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 . The weekend Wall Street Journal gave a generous two-page preview. The foretaste in the Journal presented no surprises, since the author, Charles Murray, offered the standard American Enterprise Institute blame-throwing: “As I’ve argued in much of my previous work, I think that the reforms of the 1960s jump-started the deterioration” of the culture, beginning with economic change. No doubt these urgent reforms did have a down-side and contributed to the “American Divide,” but this single-explanation approach leaves out too much about the “why” of the in accounting for the way “the working class falls further away from institutions like marriage and religion and the upper class becomes more isolated.”
One might add to the list of the many causes of the divide: cynicism spread by cynical popular culture and mass media; hyper-individualism (St. Ayn Rand) and denigration of community and support of “the common life;” polarization in politics and the loss of civility in “discourse;” quick-fix solutions to problems in religious, educational, and cultural life where patience would have more to offer; certainly the move into the world(s) of virtual reality with artificiality and insubstantiality in the bytes-world; radical pluralism and the jostling it brings. I know, I know: there is an up side to most of these, but we need to remind ourselves of more causes of division and isolation of “classes” than get much attention in Charles Murray’s world.

That being said, Murray is still worth a read, not least of all because of data with which he works and statistics he presents. Of the numerous “worlds” he headlines for the “white working class”: “Marriage down 36 percentage points;” “males with jobs working fewer than 40 hours per week, ” “percentage doubled;” “secularism up 21 percentage points. . . .” Mention “secularism,” and Sightings pays special attention. Murray necessarily has to use broad measuring tools, and concentrates on “people who profess no religion or attend a worship service no more than once a year.” If 38 percent were “secular” by that measure in 1971-76, we do well to pay attention if the figure is 59 percent in the years 2006-2010.
There are other ways to measure “secularism,” and church critics might look at the market-oriented and prosperity gospel churches and see that commitment to God through them may often be defined as “secular.” Still, Murray’s “churchy” concentration indicates what I call “seismic,” not “glacial” shifting.
The church (and synagogue and mosque and “whatever,” as they say in pluralist America), has known other seismic shifts through the centuries but, as many within them remind us, “they’re still here.” One hears many notices of the change, mixed with lamentations, whispered whining, expressions of nostalgia for a world that never was, along with careful analyses and efforts at programming. The theologians would say that all this has something to do with the nature of faith in God, hope for the future, and love for the good, and would ask for more than statistics, market analysis, and blaming. If Murray’s work is recognized as a contribution which merits attention, we can thank the author for it, but set it in a larger context than the one he provides.


Charles Murray, “The New American Divide, ” Wall Street Journal,  January 21, 2012.

Bill Bishop and Robert G. Cushing,  The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

Very helpful analysis of “seismic shift” change in “the religious marketplace” is offered by C. Kirk Hadaway in a chapter from Church & Denominational Growth (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.


In this month’s Religion and Culture Web Forum, Jonathan Wyn Schofer explores how late ancient rabbinic narratives understand human vulnerability in relation to the environment, and the ethical instruction inspired by this understanding. Schofer proposes that "contemporary environmental ethics can learn much from considering these perhaps exotic rituals and stories," which "portray people as entrenched in natural processes."


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