Monday, April 30, 2012

What Barriers? Reflections on Acts 8:26-40

26 An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “ At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. ” (This is a desert road.) 27 So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) 28 He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “ Approach this carriage and stay with it. ”30 Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “ Do you really understand what you are reading? ”31 The man replied, “ Without someone to guide me, how could I? ” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. 32 This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
  • Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
  • and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
  • so he didn’t open his mouth.
  • 33 In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
  • Who can tell the story of his descendants
  • because his life was taken from the earth? 
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “ Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else? ” 35 Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. 36 As they went down the road, they came to some water.The eunuch said, “ Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized? ” 38 He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.  (Acts 8:46-40 CEB)

The story of Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch is a powerful reminder that God can and will overturn barriers that we erect or that even God might erect.  Here is a person who has a deep sense of loyalty to the God of Israel, and yet his physical condition limits his access to the things of God.  As we journey through Easter, and near the Pentecost moment when the Spirit turns things upside down, this story is a good reminder of where the pathway is leading.

I appreciate a word given by Barbara Brown Taylor found in today's reading found in the Daily Feast: Meditations from Feasting on the Word, Year B(WJK Press, 2011).

She writes:

This story is think with the presence of the Holy Spirit, which raises interesting questions about how that Spirit works.  If God is the Law-maker, then God is also the Law-bender, or at least the Law-transcender, who both places limits on the faithful and inspires them to challenge those limits when right relationships with God and neighbor are at state.  This dynamic shows up in both testaments, not just one.  When Philip follows the Spirit's leading to go to the Ethiopian eunuch, he follows in the footsteps of his ancestor Elijah, who was led by the Lord to a widow of Zarephath (1 kings. 17:9).  When Philip comes up with nothing that might prevent the Ethiopian from being baptized, he acts on the eschatalogical prophecy of of Isaiah 56:4-5.

As Barbara Brown Taylor notes, it's not that there aren't limits, but God can and will transcend them, when it is appropriate and fruitful for the furtherance of our relationships with God and neighbor.    

As we begin a new week, what barriers is the Spirit removing?  

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Tending to the Other Sheep -- A Sermon

John 10:11-18

As far as I know, none of us here has direct experience at being a shepherd.  Whatever we know about sheep and shepherding probably comes from books, movies, and our imaginations.  But, large numbers of people living in the ancient world did know a lot about sheep and shepherding, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to find both images present in the biblical story.  There is David the Shepherd King, and Jesus the Good Shepherd.  One of the most beloved passages of Scripture is the 23rd Psalm, which declares: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want . . .”  

For many, the image of sheep and shepherds is rather serene and comforting.  If you Google Jesus and shepherd, you’ll find lots If you Google the words Jesus and shepherd you’ll find lots of pictures of a smiling Jesus surrounded by adoring sheep.  But, as both the 23rd Psalm and John 10 remind us, the life of the shepherd is anything but peaceful and serene.  There are wolves seeking to scatter and devour the sheep, and the shepherd has to stand firm.  The shepherd also must lead the flock to find food and water.  There also thieves who try to sneak in by climbing the fence to steal the sheep.    

Even though the hired hands, who have nothing invested in the sheep, flee in the face of danger, the Good Shepherd stands firm, even if it means death. 

A passage of Scripture like John 10 has a context.  There’s a lot going on behind the scenes of this text, and it seems clear from this passage that John’s community is living under duress.  There are thieves and wolves, prowling about, seeking either to steal or to destroy the sheep of the pasture.   

The Good Shepherd, who is Jesus, on the other hand, comes into our midst, offering to us abundant life.  Jesus says to us, I know my flock, and they know my voice.  When I call out to them, they will come and follow me.  They can trust my voice, and won’t scatter when I approach. 

Yes, there is a lot going on in this passage.  It’s clear that John is concerned about the future of his community.  There are forces intent on dividing this community, and so John points us to Jesus, the Shepherd, who lays down his life for his people, but then takes it up again so that he can continue serving as the shepherd of the flock of God.  

  The words that stood out to me in this passage are found in verse 16:    

I have other sheep that don’t belong to this sheep pen.  I must lead them too.  They will listen to my voice and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.

As I read these words, I wondered – what does Jesus, the Good Shepherd  want us to hear in these words? 

Who are these other sheep, whom Jesus seeks to bring into the one flock, so that he can be the one shepherd over the entire flock? 

There’s one answer that I’ve always had fun with, though I’m not convinced of its veracity.  Mormons look to this passage as proof for their belief, as recorded in the Book of Mormon, that after his resurrection, Jesus paid a visit to his followers living in the Americas.  If that interpretation “floats your boat,” then more power to you.  I just think there are other more logical options.  

One option is the Gentile mission.  If so, then Jesus speaks here of his desire to bring both Jew and Gentile into the fold.  I think that this is a very fruitful interpretation, and there is much truth to it.  By the time that John writes, the church is increasingly Gentile and there is a danger that the church could split along Jewish/Gentile lines. 

It’s also possible that John is thinking about how a later generation of believers is part of that original flock.

Or perhaps John has the danger of factionalism in mind, and so this is another expression of John’s concern for the unity of the church.  We see this expressed so very clearly in Jesus’ prayer in the Garden, where just prior to his arrest, he prays: 

I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. (Jn. 17:21 CEB).  
As we seek to hear Jesus’ voice in our own time, this prayer for unity is an apt one.  By the end of the first century, when John writes his gospel, the Christian community has become increasingly diverse.  Parties are forming.  Various theologies are emerging.  The church is fragmenting, and John believes that this is a problem.  He’s concerned that there are thieves and wolves prowling about seeking to destroy the community.  

Partisanship isn’t a new phenomenon, but we seem to be living at a time of increasing polarization.  People are losing faith in government, in business, and in the church.  Many are tired of dealing with factions and partisans, who seek to gain power over others.   Every poll and survey suggests that large numbers of younger people are simply walking away from the church.  They’re turned off by partisanship and bickering. 

  If Jesus has other sheep to tend to, who might these other flocks be?  In verse 16, we hear Jesus say to us: “They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock, with one shepherd.”  

So what are some of these lines of separation that divide and perhaps destroy, fences that Jesus seeks to remove so that the two flocks might be one?
  • Protestant and Catholic
  • Liberal and Conservative
  • Evangelical and Mainline
  • Black and White
  • Asian and Latino
  • Young and Old
  • Gay and Straight
  • Church member and non-member
We could add others. 

In that prayer that Jesus offers in the Garden, he asks that his followers might be one, even as he is one with the Father.  In this passage, Jesus says that there is one flock, and that he knows the sheep, and they know his voice.  We are people of the Spirit.  Jesus knows our names, and we seek to know his voice, but even as we seek to know his voice it is important to remember that there maybe other flocks to whom he is speaking.  

In this regard, Scott Williamson writes these compelling words:
The love of Christ compels us to listen for Jesus’ voice as it is heard by our brothers and sisters outside our fold.  Then and only then will we be able to share in God’s love for them. (Preaching God's Transforming Justicep. 21).  
Jesus’ flock is bigger than this congregation, bigger than the Disciples of Christ, bigger than Protestantism.  I dare say, it is likely bigger than any of our categories.  It is easy for us to confuse our particular sheepfold, with the entirety of Jesus’ flock.  But, Jesus reminds us that he has other sheep, whom he has called, and who know his voice.  He is their shepherd, even as he is our shepherd.  And we are brought together as one flock as we listen for Jesus’ voice as others hear this voice.  This happens, as we allow the Spirit to move in our midst, interpreting those voices for us.   
The listening campaign, which I spoke of last week, is one of the ways, in which I believe Jesus will help us listen for his voice in the voices of others in our congregation and in our community.  And as we listen for this voice and find our unity in the presence of the Good Shepherd, we will discover the abundance that is ours to share.  

As all four gospels remind us, Jesus took a few loaves of bread and a few fish, gave thanks, and distributed the food.  Even though the crowd numbered in the thousands, everyone ate and was satisfied.  
Yes, the Lord is our shepherd and we shall not want.  For: 

You set a table for me right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!
Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the LORD ’s house as long as I live.  (Ps. 23:5-6 CEB)

Indeed, we shall all live in the Lord’s house together as one flock, with one shepherd, as we listen for his voice and follow it!  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 28, 2012
4th Sunday of Easter

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Is Storytelling Sermonics Sufficient?

Narrative preaching and inductive preaching have become popular in recent years.  At one level it taps into Jesus' manner of preaching (parables), but preaching inductively is not easy.  Simply standing up and telling a few stories may prove entertaining, but may not get us very far.  Narrative preaching when most effective assumes that the audience has a connection with the biblical story, but unfortunately in most of our mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches there is a lack of knowledge of the biblical story.  I might have issues with the way conservative evangelicals interpret the biblical text, but they do use it.

Now, I must confess that I'm not a good story teller.  I'm much more likely to read non-fiction, theological books, than fiction.  Much of the narratives I connect with come from movies or TV.  I'm also trained as a theologian (focus on historical theology), so I'm probably more comfortable with theology than story.  But, having made the confession, I am concerned that in our rush to experience focused faith, we may leave behind substance.  

My reflections on this topic were stirred by my reading of Susan Hedahl's new book in the Fortress Resources for Preaching -- Proclamation and Celebration: Preaching on Christmas, Easter, and Other Festivals (Fortress Resources for Preaching), (Fortress, 2012).  Hedahl is teaches preaching at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg.  

She offers this critique of Narrative Preaching:

The impact of the last several decades of so-called narrative preaching, usually defined as "storytelling," a mode of sermonic construction, has been particularly troublesome in this regard [lacking doctrinal connectivity].  Doctrine and teachings often receive less attention in this more experientially slanted type of proclamation.  It is a form of preaching that can be effective but is difficult to do well.  Hermeneutical work is more heavily weighted toward what the pew sitter might make of the sermon than what the preacher proclaims. 
This type of preaching frequently reflects lack of congregational instruction in evangelism, the catechumenate, mission, and Christian education.  At its worst, it becomes only a "feel-good" form of proclamation.,  Unfortunately, the impact of such preaching, with its own set of beguilements and assets, has been so widespread that one must ask what new models of proclamation are in process today that might offset its problems.  (p. 16)
Whether you're a preacher or not, I'd like to ask the question -- how do we bring into our discourse as Christians, the doctrinal component in a way that is open, but seriously attentive to the ongoing tradition of the faith.  The Bible is, I would assert, more than a set of stories that we can use to begin our own conversations.  It is the fountain, out of which we have been over the course of time, drawing to fuel our engagement with God.  Doctrine need not be dry and off-putting.  It needn't be tied into propositions, but it does, it seems to me, require that we attend to the substance of what we believe.   What say ye?

Friday, April 27, 2012

What Does the Lord Require? A Review

WHAT DOES THE LORD REQUIRE?: Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly.By James C. Howell.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.  80 pages.

What does the Lord require of us?  The answer is clear, at least in the mind of Micah – justice, kindness, and humility (Micah 6:8).  This passage of scripture is well-known to many of us.   It is simple and direct, but like other simple and direct statements, there are nuances and meanings that are buried deep in these words that require our attention. 

                United Methodist pastor James C. Howell (Myers Park UMC of Charlotte, North Carolina) is a prolific author of books that speak both to clergy and laity, and in this brief book Howell draws upon his hermeneutical and homiletical skills to help us unpack this most powerful of biblical texts for today. 

                In the course of eight chapters, Howell walks us through the passage, introducing us to the prophet, the controversy that led to the prophetic work of Micah, and then to the text itself.    He notes that this prophet about whom we little beyond his name and what that might mean, as well as his social location, sets up the conversation as a trial, with the Lord bringing charges against the people (Micah 6:1-2), with creation and history serving as the witnesses for the prosecution.   Micah draws attention to their piety and suggests that it is not in line with their actions.  God is not interested in piety that is contradicted by the way one lives.  Having been declared guilty, what will the Lord require of us?  In answering that question, Howell, who has a Ph.D. in Old Testament, dives deep into this word “require.”  He notes that what is darased “is personal; it matters” (p. 17).  It is not focused on rules, but on what God takes delight in.  As for the three things God desires – they don’t form a checklist.  They are three, but they are also one, perhaps describing the inner life of God, and separated from one another, they won’t make sense. 

                Although these three things God requires can’t be separated from one another, it is important to understand what Micah has in mind by using these three words.  The Hebrew here is mishpat, and the justice that is envisioned is that which was laid out on Sinai.  It points us back to God’s commands, and they are not laws that apply just anywhere – they are personal because they come for God, they “reveal the heart of God” (p. 29).  This vision of justice is intended to create a community where the poor, the orphan and the widow, are defended.  He writes:
A just society is not necessarily the one where fairness reigns and the diligent and thrifty are rewarded.  No, a just society is the one where everyone belongs, where the neediest are taken good care o, where no one is hungry or disenfranchised (p. 31).   
As we contemplate this definition of justice, which Howell suggests comes from the heart of God, we are asked – how do we fair?  Is our piety in contradiction to God’s heart?

                From justice we move to kindness, but kindness isn’t niceness.  In fact the words used here are difficult to translate.  In fact, all of the extant translations seem to pick up the nuances of this requirement.  The first word is love, and that’s fairly easy to define, but the word hesed is a rather rich word, and maybe is best translated as “covenant loyalty.”  Thus, to fulfill this commandment we are called to love with covenant loyalty, but this must be unpacked, and Howell does so.  Finally we come to walking humbly with God, which as Howell points out isn’t a command to “be humble,” but to walk with God in humility.  It speaks of an active presence of God, and God is never absent from this journey.  Our ability to experience justice and loving kindness is rooted in our walking humbly with God, and because we belong to God, and walk with God, we can walk together as a people, “for, and with, everybody else” (p. 56). 

                As Howell notes in his epilogue in this brief passage, God “has graciously shown what is good.”  God answers the question of what God requires and what God delights in. He writes:  On our own, we lunge toward justice, love, and humility, knowing we will fail, but the very desire to please God pleases God, and the Holy Spirit may just produce the fruit of Micah 6:8 in us.  The world is even hungrier for it than we are” (p. 57). 

                Howell’s treatment of Micah 6:8, which draws out important nuances that enliven our understanding of this prophetic vision, is accompanied by a study guide created by Kathy Wolf Reed.  She lays it out as a four session study, making this an attractive option for groups who need a short option, but also one that will have a transforming effect on the people who engage it.  The guide is laid out very well, offering options and guidelines, so group leaders will be well prepared to engage the topic.

                Well written, well thought-out, provocative and yet comforting, this book will have value for individuals, groups, and even preachers looking for sermon ideas.  Diving into this book and the text it meditates upon will be quickly rewarded by a vision of what God desires for us, a relationship built upon justice, love, and humility. 


Thursday, April 26, 2012

A Shepherd's Love -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter 4

A Shepherd’s Love

            To whom do we belong?  To whom do we owe allegiance?  Who is the source of our salvation and the unity of the community?  Is it not the Good Shepherd, who demonstrates his great love for us through his willingness to lay down his life for his brothers and sisters?  Is it not the one whom the powers and principalities of this world chose to put to death, but whom God has vindicated through resurrection and by creating a new community in his image?  These seem to be the messages emerging from the texts for this Fourth Sunday of Easter.  The connection between the cross and resurrection, and our own realities continues to ring strong, inviting us to find meaning and purpose, love and truth, salvation and hope, in the person of the Good Shepherd.

            These are in many ways familiar texts, especially when you add into the mix Psalm 23.  They offer words of comfort and hope, but also challenges to our ways of doing things.  And for more progressive and inclusive Christians amongst us, there may appear to be an overriding exclusiveness in the message, a perspective most clearly present in Acts 4, but is also present in the two Johannine texts.  How do we understand this call to follow the Good Shepherd with an open and welcoming heart?

            Let us begin with the reading from 1 John 3, a passage that speaks of Jesus’ love, which is expressed in his willingness to lay down his life for us.  His sacrifice provides a model for living a life of love that is marked by action and truth, not merely one of words or speech.  How do we show this love?  One way, John writes, is to share our material possessions with the brother or sister in need.  If a person doesn’t care about the other, can the love of God be present in that person?  To love as Jesus loved, is to be like him.   If, as we hear this word, we begin to feel condemned in our hearts, God is greater than our hearts.  But, keep following his commandments.  Do what pleases God, and that involves two things – believe in the name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and love each other.  If you do this, you will abide in God, and God will abide in you.  Why?  Because the Spirit has been given to us.  There is a word of grace present here, but also a reminder that our lives are expressions of God’s presence.  If there is a lack of evidence of love for others, of giving of ourselves to and for others, then the reality of our confession is called into question.   
            The Gospel reading picks up on similar themes as the reading from 1 John 3.  The passage begins strongly:  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  What is a good shepherd?  Well, unlike hired-hands that flee when wolves attack, the good shepherd stands firm, laying down his life for the sheep.    Hirelings (the older way of saying this), flee the field, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves.  The Good Shepherd stands firm because these sheep belong to the shepherd.  He knows each one of them, and they know his voice.  There are no strangers here.  The shepherd image was prominent in both Jewish and Gentile cultures, and it’s likely that standing behind this passage is the witness of Psalm 23.  The Lord is my shepherd, the one who leads me through dark valleys, protecting me (and the rest of the flock), with rod and staff.  Indeed, the shepherd lays out a table for us in the midst of our enemies.  There is no need to fear, because we stand in relationship with the shepherd. 

            It is clear from John’s text that Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Whatever it means to be a shepherd is rooted in his life, in his death, and in his resurrection.  Those who follow him, taking up the shepherding task, do so in recognition of this model of the one who stands fast in the face of danger.   As we consider this model, it is good to separate out what Fred Craddock and Eugene Boring call the “soft, warm and fuzzies” image of the shepherd.  This isn’t a chaplaincy model of ministry.  After all in the Old Testament the kings of Israel were described as being shepherds, and thus, the image “connotes both power that commands obedience and personal devotion to the sheep” (The People's New Testament Commentary, p. 321). 

There are a couple of items sticking out from this passage that need to be teased out.  First, we need to address the question of the identity of the wolves.  Even if we can’t pinpoint the identity of these attackers, it seems quite likely that John’s community is facing significant pressure from forces that could destroy the community.  These wolves seek to divide, scatter, and destroy the community.   Whatever the nature of the problem, and it clearly has theological components, the Good Shepherd stands firm and protects the flock.  It would appear that those who follow in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd have a similar duty – to address threats to the community.  It would seem that this passage would underline the importance of the role of teaching in the life of the church.  Although doctrine has gotten a bad rap among progressives, is it possible for the church to become so open-minded on things that there is no longer any real substance to their faith? 

The other piece that stands out to me is the reference to the “other sheep.”  The Good Shepherd has an intimate relationship with the flock – the community.  There is in this image a sense of exclusiveness, of coziness, that is very attractive to us, especially if we’re sort of introverted.  There is safety in a closed community.  But John is concerned about those outside the sheep pen, the other sheep that belong to the shepherd.  As to whom John’s Jesus has in mind, there are a number of possibilities.  Chief among them would be the Gentiles, who by now are a major focus of the church’s ministry.  It could be a concern for the unity of the church at a time when the church seems to be drifting apart, following after different leaders.  Reading John 17, makes it clear that John is concerned about the unity of the community, and so is Jesus speaking of bringing two estranged communities back together?  Or could it be that John has in mind later generations of Christians who may see themselves as part of the original body of Jesus disciples?  I wonder if we really have to choose, for each of these has its value.  Most importantly, it reminds us that even if the community has an intimate relationship with its founder, it is not a closed community.  Others may enter the fold, if brought in by the Shepherd.   As we ponder this passage, it would be hopeful to consider who seem to be the separated ones in our day.  There are religious differences and political ones, ethnic and linguistic, cultural and generational.  There is a growing trend among those under thirty to walk away from the church.  Some may see this as laziness, but it appears that for many the church simply no longer speaks to the longings of their hearts or give meaning and purpose to their lives.  As Tony Jones noted in a presentation I attended recently, young people want to talk about theology.  They want to know whether this God we talk about has some substance, or is God simply a construct meant to keep us in line. 

In the community of the Good Shepherd, there is both intimacy and welcome.  The Shepherd knows the sheep, but there are other sheep to be considered.  As Scott Williamson writes, we must beware or conflating our “particular fold with the universal flock,” thinking that “our fold is a prototype for the flock.  At stake is how far mutual love requires us to bend and change in order to be united to our other brothers and sisters outside our fold.  What new languages must we learn to love them? (Preaching God's Transforming Justicep. 221).  Jesus says, as the Good Shepherd has responsibility for both flocks, which he seeks to bring in to unity (though not necessarily uniformity).   
We finally come to Acts 4, where we find Peter and John standing before the religious leaders of Jerusalem defending their involvement in the healing of a man who is unable to walk.  They are asked:  “By what power or in what name did you do this?”  The way these words are placed together it’s clear that the name is power, and since “the name” is used often Acts, we know from this that whenever used, the question of power is in play.  By what authority do you act?  Obviously they don’t have a license from on high.  Does that sound familiar?  How often has ecclesiastical hierarchies quenched the Spirit?  Of course, the question is both political and theological.  The religious leaders – as the shepherds of the people are concerned to protect the people against heresy and against division – just as any good shepherds would do.   The answer Peter and John offer demonstrates that they do not recognize this authority to determine orthodoxy, whether political or theological.  They act in a different name, the name of the one the religious leaders had decided to eliminate by turning him over to the Romans to be executed.  But God has vindicated Jesus, first by raising him from the dead, and now by healing this man.  Peter and John say – it’s not us, it’s Jesus.  Both the resurrection and the healing are signs of vindication, and serve as the foundation for his authority.  Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation of God’s new work in the world. 

In this new move of God, the message of salvation, of wholeness and healing, goes out in Jesus’ name, for “no other name has been given among humans through whom we must be saved.”  There is again this exclusivist element to the passage, in fact, this text has been at the center of many a debate over whether or not one must confess Jesus as Lord to be saved and enter the realm of God.  That is one way of reading this passage, but I’m not sure it’s the “only way.”  Theologians such as Karl Barth and Karl Rahner have assumed that God in Christ reconciles the world, whether it/they make that confession or not.  It is simply the way God has chosen to act.  It is the only name, the final name, through which God works, but we needn’t take it in an either/or, heaven/hell manner.

The point of our texts is the reminder that the Risen Christ is the Good Shepherd, who models for us the way of love, a way that leads to wholeness and healing for the world.  He models this love, by standing firm in the face of the wolves and by laying down his life for his brothers and sisters who are in need.  And this occurs not just when convenient, but at all times.       

An Islamic State in Egypt? The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections -- Sightings

It has been a year since Hosni Mubarak fell, and a new day dawned for Egypt.  It was called the Arab Spring, and hopes of further change in regimes arose.  In some places that envisioned change did occur, wile in others things have remained the same or as in Syria have evolved into a bloody civil war.  Progress in Egypt, the largest Arab state, has been slow and has at times lurched backward.  As many in the West watched last Spring, they envisioned a Western style democracy led by more secular types.  What they feared was the rise of religiously based parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.   The Muslim Brotherhood has become a player, though rulings by the Election Commission have tempered their prospects of taking the presidency.  Still, more religiously-focused parties have gained traction.  But, should that a problem for us?  After all, here in the United States, one of the two major parties has strong conservative religious orientations.  In today's edition of Sightings, Barbara Zollner gives us a bit of insight into the evolving Presidential race, especially the role of the Muslim Brotherhood, helping us understand who is who.  Take a read!

Sightings  4/26/2012 

An Islamic State in Egypt? 
The Muslim Brotherhood and the Presidential Elections
-- Barbara Zollner
The battle over Egypt’s democratic future is at a significant crossroads. But while the fight for succession to Mubarak’s throne is fully under way, the rules of the competition seem to be constantly changing. 
Only two weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) announced their decision to field a candidate for the May presidential elections. They nominated businessman and multi-millionaire Khayrat al-Shater. Fostering deep-seated fears about Islamist regimes, the Washington Post expressed concern that, should Shater win the elections, Islamic law would be enforced.   
A few days later, Army General Omar Suleiman came forward as a challenger.  Suleiman led Mubarak’s Intelligence Service for more than two decades and was Vice-President when the regime fell. He has support from the ruling Security Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), as well as support from members of society wishing for a return of the old order. With these two figures in the race, it seemed that the presidential contest would be between the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime. 
Overall there was a wide range of candidates--23 applications were submitted to the Presidential Electoral Committee (PEC). The wide spectrum of candidates included the Salafist al-Nour candidate, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail, whose views definitely pointed towards an Islamic State; and the secular liberal Ghad al-Thawra candidate, Ayman al-Nour, who famously challenged Mubarak in the 2005 elections. 
Anxieties were growing about a potential take-over of an increasingly religiously conservative Brotherhood; a worry which was matched by the outright fear that “The Revolution” could be reversed by the SCAF. On April 16 the PEC announced the list of verified candidates, and ten candidates were struck off. 
The Salafist Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail’s exclusion followed the disclosure that his mother was granted US citizenship in 2007. Electoral law states that both parents of a candidate must be Egyptian citizens.  
The Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Khayrat al-Shater, who was imprisoned for laundering money for the then banned MB, was caught up by his “criminal” past. Although he received a pardon, the PEC invoked the rule that only candidates with a clean record can stand for elections. 
Omar Suleiman was controversially disqualified following the introduction of the “Disenfranchisement Law” just days before the PEC decision. The law disallows former members of the regime to stand for elections for at least 10 years.  
With Al-Shater, Sulaiman and Abu Ismail gone, the clash of political extremes is significantly reduced.  Whilst the Brotherhood were quick to endorse chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party Muhammad Mursi,  and although the SCAF’s favour seems to fall onto ex-Prime Minister Ahmad Shafik, neither candidate seems to rally the public behind them sufficiently.  Because of the PEC’s decision the pool of potential forerunners is greatly reduced, and eyes are now on mainstream nationalist and liberal Islamist candidates. 
On the liberal Islamist side, we find Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh. His support spectrum ranges from Islamists to secular nationalists. Because of his past association with the MB, he might appeal to Brothers, particularly those who quietly shun al-Mursi.  Last year Abul-Fotouh was expelled from the MB, ostensibly because his aim to prepare a presidential bid clashed with the organisation’s plans at that time, but more likely because his liberal Islamic ideas were a thorn in the side of the orthodox leadership.  His improved chances epitomise the constant flux of fortunes in Egyptian politics. 
The other major contender in the presidential race is now Amr Moussa. He served as Secretary General of the Arab League since 2001 and was Egypt’s Foreign Secretary for a decade before that.  Back then, this role made him a potential successor to Mubarak; yet rumour had it that disagreements ended his amicable relationship with the former dictator.  The positive slant to the dip in his previous career is that he is not seen as a vestige of the old regime. While the squabbles of the recent past had pushed Moussa’s chances to the margins, he has now returned with some force.  
Looking at the spectrum of candidates today, there is again hope that the first free presidential elections will not intensify already existing tensions in Egyptian society. Still, there are many issues unresolved. With the constituent assembly in tatters over its composition and legality, it is unlikely that there will be a decision on the constitutional framework before the presidential elections.  What does seem likely is that, despite the Brotherhood’s domination of the political scene, Egypt is not about to become an Islamic state. 

Barbara Zollner is Lecturer in Islamic Studies in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College. She is the author of The Muslim Brotherhood: Hasan al-Hudaybi and Ideology (Routledge, 2009). 

 This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée” by Larisa Jasarevic. Jasarevic writes about encounters at a singularly popular therapist in Bosnia, Nerka, whom patients have lovingly titled “the Queen of Health.” In the midst of the new medical and magical market, sorcery and Koranic healing appeal to people in Bosnia irrespective of their religious backgrounds, upsetting the conventional image of Bosnia as forever divided by ethno-national-religious considerations. According to Jasarevic, Nerka irreverently puts into play and displaces the differences reified since the 1990s genocidal conflict. Beginning with Jean-Luc Nancy’s reluctant writing on identity and mixing--provoked by the Bosnian war and discourse of ethnic cleansing--Jasarevic's essay visits some local, ritual, and habitual responses to magical, medical, and religious mixing and paints a gathering around the impossibility of belonging. Read Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée.

Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bonhoeffer's Works -- Volume 11 Arrives

I have been fascinated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer's story for many years, first reading Cost of Discipleship (simply Discipleship in the Works of Bonhoeffer series) in college.  I took the "Ethics of Bonhoeffer" class with Lewis Smedes at Fuller, which allowed me to read fairly widely in Bonhoeffer's works, though the focus was his unfinished Ethics.  I've read many of the biographies, starting with Eberhard Bethge's standard bio through Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (I'd recommend steering clear of the Metaxas popular but extremely problematic bio and go with this one).  And I subscribed to Fortress's English edition of the Works of Bonhoeffer -- sixteen volumes in all.

Yesterday, the most recent volume, number 11, arrived in the mail.  This is by my count the penultimate volume (only volume 14 remains unpublished), and is entitled Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work, 1931-1932 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works).  This volume contains letters, lectures, sermons, a catechism, and more.  Much of the material from this era is fragmentary, and the lectures are largely reconstructed from student notes.  Still, just skimming through the book last night, I was amazed at his prodigious efforts, his insight into political, social, and theological issues.

Now, the materials found in this volume, stem from the period immediately following his year-long stay in America, where he studied at Union Theological Seminary.  Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer was, at this time, just 25-26 years old.  He has already finished the equivalent of two Ph.Ds, published both dissertations (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being ), served as an intern pastor, entered the ecumenical world, and began lecturing in theology at the University of Berlin.  It is during this period that he also begins to read Barth with deep interest, and actually meets this theological giant.

You can tell from his letters to his friends and family that Barth has made a major impression on him.  In one letter to his friend Erwin Sutz dated July 24, 1931, Bonhoeffer writes from Bonn where he is taking in Barth's lectures, he writes:
Now everything is very much or completely different when it comes to Karl Barth himself.  You can breathe freely.  You are no longer afraid you will die for lack of oxygen in the rarefied atmosphere.  I have, I believe, seldom regretted not having done something in my theological past as much as I now regret that I did not go to hear Barth sooner.  (p. 37).
Remember he's just twenty-five, and Barth has become one of the most important and influential theologians of the age.  Many young theologians, like Bonhoeffer, are taken with him.  Having the opportunity to meet him, to talk theology with him, and listen to his lectures would have been a dream come true.

For many, Bonhoeffer, in death became a theological mentor, much as Barth did for Bonhoeffer, especially early on.  By the end of his brief life, Bonhoeffer was moving beyond Barth into new directions, which is why I think so many people from so many different theological perspectives want to grab on to him.  Bonhoeffer was an imaginative, creative, persistent, theologian.  He left a lot of loose ends, that might have been tied up had he lived the same number of years as Barth, Bultmann, and Tillich.  But alas he didn't, but he left us with much to consider.  And in this volume, we have the writings of a very young, but very creative mind, who is seeking to understand his faith in a new and living way.

So, check it out!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012


SACRAMENTS AND WORSHIP: The Sources of Christian Theology.  Edited by Maxwell E. Johnson.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Books, 2012.  Xvii + 422 pages.

        The sacraments and worship stand at the heart of the Christian faith.  Everything we do is rooted in our worship of God, and the sacraments provide grounding for worship and serve as its expression.  Having said this, it is clear that Christians are not of one mind when it comes to either worship or sacraments.  Protestants have two sacraments, while Roman Catholics have seven.  For some worship is extremely formal and for others quite informal.  There is, you might say, some history behind this diversity of belief and expression, and Maxwell Johnson’s book provides the kind of resources that help illuminate this diversity.

         Sacraments and Worship forms part of a new series entitled The Sources of Christian Theology.  According to the publisher, this series is intended to”provide resources for the study of major Christian doctrines.”  Each volume in the series provides “essential elements of theological formulations about each doctrine,” with the editor of each volume providing an introduction and contextual material to better understand the nuances of these texts.    

                The editor of this volume is Maxwell Johnson, a Methodist liturgical scholar teaching at the University of Notre Dame.  He notes the influence of two other liturgical scholars who also have taught at Notre Dame, James White, himself a Methodist, and Paul Bradshaw, an Anglican priest.  This convergence of Catholic and Episcopal (both Methodist and Anglican varieties) is evident in the layout of the book and the concerns of the editor.   He believes strongly that history can be of great help in understanding our current liturgical and sacramental concerns.

Johnson recognizes the need for some methodological caution, acknowledging that the development of sacramental and liturgical ideas and practices is not of a single line or trajectory, but they go in a variety of directions.  One must, he notes, look at these ideas and practices both chronologically and geographically, going East and West.  Still, there is a sense of the purpose and value of sacraments and liturgy that transcends all of these differences.  There is, he believes, a common purpose that is expressed in a variety of ways, which has historical roots.  There is a classic liturgical tradition that sees God acting in creation and with humanity “through means, instruments, and mediation, in ways that are described as both incarnational and sacramental” (p. xiii).  Sacraments and liturgics, in his estimation, serve to express our theological beliefs about God and God’s relationship with the world.   

The book is composed of seven chapters, which take the user of this companion to theology, through seven points of interest.  We begin with an examination – historically – of sacraments in general, continue on to look at liturgical theology, sacraments and rites of Christian Initiation (baptism and confirmation), the Eucharist, liturgies of the Word, Occasional Sacraments and services (penance, healing, marriage, ordination, and burial, to name a few), and finally “liturgy and time” (daily prayer and the liturgical year).  Each chapter of the book is given a brief contextual introduction, helping the reader get her or his bearings before taking what can be a rather meandering journey through time and place.

To give a sense of the book’s patterns, I’ll focus on chapter 3, “Sacraments and Rites of Christian Initiation.”  Johnson treats baptism and confirmation together, beginning with texts that emerge in the first three centuries.  He starts with the relevant New Testament texts, and then moves forward through time and place.  We start in Syria with the witness of the Didache, which gives rather explicit directions for baptism, followed by Justin Martyr and others.  Then we move to Egypt and Clement of Alexandria, and then to North Africa and Tertullian, and then to Rome.  From there we move into the fourth through sixth centuries, again moving from place to place.  Of importance here is the witness of Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine.   Then we move into the medieval period, looking both East and West.  Here we get more into actual liturgical texts, which will have important influence in the future.  Moving forward we come to the era of Reformations, and here we have texts from Luther, Menno Simons, Zwingli (in response to the Anabaptist challenge), Calvin, the English Prayer Books, and the Council of Trent.  Interestingly, he places Wesley at the end of this Reformation section, after Trent.  From there we move into the modern period, where we engage a variety of texts from the Roman Catholic to the Protestant.  Some seek to reinterpret and reinvest in the tradition while others, like Barth deconstruct it and call for the abandonment of infant baptism.   As an adherent of a believer baptism tradition, I found the book to be fair to all sides.  One has the opportunity to consider carefully where one’s own perspective emerges.  We can see that initially there is little evidence of infant baptism, but also see how and why it develops and why it gets challenged.  We also see how the church, as it embraces infant baptism, brings into play confirmation to shore up the connection of the adherent to the church.  If there’s something missing here and elsewhere in the book, it’s the voice of the Quakers.   Quakers lack the material substance of the sacraments, and have chosen this path very carefully.  Its voice might provide an important contrast to the other voices.

As a historian I always appreciate resources like this, for when carefully put together, they can be of great assistance to understanding the traditions of the church.  As a pastor, I also find this to be of interest and value.  The texts are long enough to give context, but brief enough to not overwhelm the person who is not as interested in history as perhaps I am.  By making use of these resources, we discern where we fall in the history of liturgical practices.  We might discover, as well, that there are resources here that will benefit the ministries of our churches, and perhaps even find permission to try new things.  After all, this is not a static tradition. It has its roots and grounding, but evolves as well.

There is in the development of this book, great care to provide for balance and to recognize the variety of expressions of Christian faith that are present in the world today and in history.  If there is an agenda with this book, it is a concern that modern Christians might neglect the great resources present in history for enriching our faith journeys.  That is, in trying to be relevant, we loose touch with our roots.  

We can be thankful to the publisher, its editorial board, and to the editor for providing us a useful set of resources so we can discern where we stand in the ongoing traditions of the church.  And for those, especially younger Protestants, who embrace the principle of an “ancient-future church,” this is a resource to visit carefully and often.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Annenberg Poll on Religion in the Media -- Sightings

Why does the media focus on the sensational, which large numbers of users of media believe happens?  Well, if it's not sensationalized do you pay attention?  Probably not.  Just normal, everyday, religion, doesn't grab us, but if there's a scandal, many of us will look up and pay attention.  But, there's another component to all of this -- very few reporters know much about religion.  Martin Marty comments on a new poll and its implications -- take a look and offer a thought!    
Sightings  4/23/2012

Annenberg Poll on Religion in the Media

-- Martin E. Marty

 “Most Americans Say Media Coverage of Religion Too Sensationalized” reads the headline of a report on a poll of a sample of “the public” and of journalists. That headline is perhaps a bit too sensationalized itself, because the pollsters had to choose which finding to feature, if they wanted your and my attention. Less apparently sensationalized findings abound and merit more attention than that truly predictable one which made the headline. News magazines, newspapers, radio news, online news websites, and (last and least of all) television news beckon for attention, and the religion which beckons for attention will tend to be sensationalized. Blah and bland religious events and reported-on ideas induce yawns, so competitive media people naturally reach for what grabs.           
Why sensationalized? Because religion on the media usually contrasts with what the typical member of the public sees. Call in Groucho (or Chico—there are arguments about that) Marx to picture the media communicators’ question: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The citizen’s own eyes usually see prosaic, routine, passive, peaceful expressions of people next door or down the block. Yet the media remind them that abuse scandals, tribal wars, embezzlements, wild (to them) religious ideas, and the sensational in general—usually occurring at a distance—make news.           
It’s time to mention the source of the survey: The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Diane Winston capably in command, and The Roy C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, John C. Green equally capably in command, interviewed 2,000 adult Americans “and a representative cross section of presumably also adult reporters. You’ll find a link below, because I hope to lure many subscribers to Sightings to read the 44-page report. It will throw light on the kind of sources on which we draw a couple of times a week. 
I won’t even try to summarize all of those findings which are not sensational and do not try to be. If you do want to pick one out, note the one Winston-Green turned into a subhead: “Less than one-fifth of reporters call themselves ‘very knowledgeable’ about religion.” I found their novel approach to categorizing five public audiences to be helpful; they define these on page 16 and keep showing up throughout. Thus: “Focused Consumers” are one-seventh of the sample, which means they keep up “a lot” and think religion coverage is “very important.” Add one-tenth of the public to locate “Specialized Consumers,” who keep up “somewhat” but still consider coverage “very important.” “Casual Consumers,” one-tenth of the public in the sample, are more, yes, “casual,” as they follow the coverage “a lot” and find religion coverage “somewhat important,” which is what the “Occasional Consumers,” one-sixth of the public also do, as they “enjoy” the religion coverage “somewhat” or less. That leaves fewer than two-fifths who are “Non-Consumers,” and who find religion coverage “not important” and so pay little attention.           
When years ago we started covering religion and paying attention to the coverers, they almost unanimously complained that they had great difficulty getting producers, programmers, chief news editors, and broadcasters interested in religion at all. The bosses were seen as hard-boiled secularists. Some “elites,” as they are often called, may still be tone-deaf or may wear blinders about religion. This survey is more evidence that they are the ones who are at least “somewhat” out of it.  Sensationally.

 Diane Winston and John C. Green, “Most Americans Say Media Coverage of Religion Too Sensationalized,” USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at 
 This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée” by Larisa Jasarevic. Jasarevic writes about encounters at a singularly popular therapist in Bosnia, Nerka, whom patients have lovingly titled “the Queen of Health.” In the midst of the new medical and magical market, sorcery and Koranic healing appeal to people in Bosnia irrespective of their religious backgrounds, upsetting the conventional image of Bosnia as forever divided by ethno-national-religious considerations. According to Jasarevic, Nerka irreverently puts into play and displaces the differences reified since the 1990s genocidal conflict. Beginning with Jean-Luc Nancy’s reluctant writing on identity and mixing--provoked by the Bosnian war and discourse of ethnic cleansing--Jasarevic's essay visits some local, ritual, and habitual responses to magical, medical, and religious mixing and paints a gathering around the impossibility of belonging. Read Three Lights on the Queen’s Face: On Mixing, Muddle, and Mêlée. 
 Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.