Friday, November 30, 2012

A Legacy Buried, But Not Gone: The Importance of the Ancient Near East for Modern Religious and Political Life -- Sightings

 The ancient Syrian city of Aleppo is much in the news these days as it serves as a center of opposition to the Assad regime.  It's a city that has a long and illustrious history, though it is not as well known to us, or at least wasn't until recently.  In this piece, University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate reminds us of the important connections ancient and modern have with each other, using the ancient history of Aleppo as a starting point.  Study of the ancient world, indeed the study of history, does have value.  
Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School 
Sightings  11/29/2012
  A Legacy Buried, But Not Gone: 
The Importance of the Ancient Near East for Modern Religious and Political Life
-- Sam Boyd
Once upon a time, in a far-away land, there existed a large kingdom. The king’s name was Yarim-Lim, and he was king of the Yamkhad dynasty, the capital of which, Halab, rivaled the capital of the other empires surrounding him. Yarim-Lim was a religiously observant man, as many of that time and place were, and was keenly aware of the fate of his father who was killed when attempting to overthrow another king named Shamshi-Adad. The god Adad had appointed Shamshi-Adad as ruler, and Yarim-Lim’s father paid for his transgression with his life. As a result, when Yarim-Lim succeeded his father, he became obsessive about religious protocol, insisting that political and religious observance (which sometimes overlapped- like they do in the modern world) be followed in all interactions with his peers.
This story may seem like a fairy tale, full of strange names, dramatic events, and unusual customs from a foreign world. It is also a story very much grounded in history. The capital Halab is now known as Aleppo in modern day Syria. Yarim-Lim ruled in the first part of the second millennium BCE, contemporaneous with another king, Hammurabi, whose name may be much more familiar to people today. Yet during his lifetime, Yarim-Lim’s power and authority perhaps exceeded Hammurabi’s, and also likely surpassed the magnitudes of those more famous kingdoms, Israel and Judah, which would emerge centuries later. If Yarim-Lim was such a powerful ruler, why is his name now so obscure compared to other ancient kings?
Part of the answer lies in the peculiar nature of Aleppo’s history. It is one of the oldest and most continuously occupied cities in the world. As such, its early remains are buried under millennia of human occupation. Part of the obscurity of Yarim-Lim also stems from modern lack of awareness of ancient Near Eastern history and culture. A quick browse at many local bookstores reveals that world history quickly jumps from categories like “myth” and “fairytale” to Greco-Roman history (with a few books on the Egyptian pyramids sprinkled in between). Yet it was the genius of Henry James Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, to show that modern thought and categories are much more deeply indebted to Near Eastern culture than many presentations of world history suggest. This connection between the ancient East and modern West is memorialized above the main entrance of the Oriental Institute’s museum, where an ancient Egyptian is shown handing the light of knowledge to a modern person. Even our familiarity with documents such as the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) in modern religious traditions often hides how ancient this document is. The lack of familiarity with ancient Near Eastern texts (including the Hebrew Bible) exists even as many people attempt to coopt these texts and the personas therein in the modern political landscape. This situation necessitates the critical study of this seemingly arcane period in human history in order to check the claims of those who would illegitimately appropriate some aspect of this period for their political advantage.
Adopting the legacy of ancient heroes and heroines is nothing new. The famous third century CE philosopher, Porphyry, dedicated his major work to Cleopatra, an oddity since Porphyry’s connection to this famous last of the pharaohs is by no means obvious or logical. It seems as though queen Zenobia of Palmyra had established herself in the legacy of Cleopatra so closely that she even took on the pharaoh’s name. More recently, when Saddam Hussein came to power in the Baathist regime, he immediately began to build a replica of Nebuchadnezzar II’s palace. This Neo-Babylonian structure had multiple lives in antiquity, including being the site of Alexander the Great’s death. Saddam Hussein’s contribution to the afterlife of this structure had profound religious and symbolic power: by copying the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, and even adopting the name of the Neo-Babylonian king as a secondary name, Hussein sought to shape his role in the modern world. Just as Nebuchadnezzar II had destroyed ancient Judah and its capital Jerusalem, Saddam Hussein hoped to oversee a similarly destructive outlook towards Israel. He also aspired to create an enduring legacy like Nebuchadnezzar’s and Alexander’s.
Halab remains buried, as does its king Yarim Lim, a reminder that forgotten kingdoms, though they may not be a part of modern consciousness, played pivotal moments in our world’s history. The fact that Yarim-Lim rivaled Hammurabi of Babylon attests to the former’s historical influence at a time when Hammurabi was creating literary culture through his laws that would last a thousand years and possibly influence the Bible itself (in the law code in the Book of Exodus). As such, the study of the ancient Near East remains vital for understanding world history, even when the people and places are initially unfamiliar to us. Moreover, this history is crucial for understanding how modern politicians craft their agenda as part of a lineage they claim simply to be preserving. The example of Nebuchadnezzar shows how the legacy of these ancient rulers can be resurrected and manipulated in the modern political and religious landscape. Indeed, the historical study of this region perhaps matters now more than ever as leaders such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad make claims that Israel had no historical existence in the land and therefore currently has no modern validity as a nation. It is through the study of the ancient Near East that such fallacious historical assertions are shown to be the extremist propaganda that they are.
Robert M. Whiting, “Amorite Tribes and Nations of Second-Millennium Western Asia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East (edited by Jack Sasson; Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2000).

Sam Boyd is a PhD Candidate in a multidisciplinary degree between the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and The Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum is entitled “Pussy Riot, the Media and Church-State Relations in Russia Today” by Katja Richters (University of Erfurt). What role was played by the Russian Orthodox Church in the arrest and sentencing of the band Pussy Riot earlier this year? And what are the implications of this case for church-state relations in Russia today? In this month's web forum, Katja Richters argues that the "reluctance on behalf of the Moscow Patriarchate to become more actively involved in the [Pussy Riot] lawsuit combined with the disunity its leadership displayed in its approach to the punk prayer gave rise to a vacuum that could be filled in many possible ways by both the media and the state. The latter took advantage of this situation by presenting the [Church] as a victim which it needed to protect." At the same time, Richters stresses, "the relationship between the [Church] and the Kremlin is much more complex than the recent developments would suggest." Read Pussy Riot, the Media and Church-State Relations in Russia Today

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Day of Redemption is at Hand -- A Lectionary Reflection for Advent

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

The Day of Redemption is at Hand

            Advent has once again arrived.  We’ve completed another cycle and are ready to begin another cycle in our journey of faith.  We start with a sense of expectation, anticipation and hope.  Those of us who have taken this journey before know what to expect, but that doesn’t mean we must become complacent about the journey.  We can, if we choose, embrace the journey and its story with the same expectation as that person taking it for the first time.  So, with Charles Wesley we sing:

Come, O Long expected Jesus, born to set your people free.
From our fears and sins release us; Christ in whom our rest shall be.
You, our strength and consolation, come salvation to impart;
Dear desire of many a nation, joy of many a longing heart.

The season of Advent announces that a new day is dawning, but it also reminds us that it has yet to arrive in its fullness.  There is more to come, so don’t be satisfied with the present moment.  Instead, stay awake; be alert, so that you will be ready when the day of the Lord arrives.   

As with Lent, this is a season of preparation, but there is less of the penitential tone and more excitement and expectation.  But the season begins with warnings and an invitation to take a different direction with life.  It’s an invitation to embrace the means of our redemption.  As a more recent Advent hymn writer (more recent than Wesley), puts it:

All earth is waiting to see the Promised One,
and open furrows, the sowing of our God.
All the world, bound and struggling seeks true liberty;
it cries out for justice and searches for the truth. (Alberto Taule, 1972).

Advent, Year C, opens with words from Jeremiah, 1 Thessalonians, and the Gospel of Luke.  There are words of hope and expectation, but also words of warning.  They tell us to be aware of the signs of the times, and yet a warning not to get caught up in them.  But, be ready when the time comes for the Human One (Son of Man) to be revealed.

The promise of hope begins in Jeremiah 33, where the prophet declares that a time is coming when the Lord “will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah” (Jer. 33:14 CEB).  A people that has lived in exile and occupation receives word that God has not forgotten them.  The promise of the covenant remains in effect.  God will not forget, but instead God will provide the means of their redemption.  The nation will be restored, by the one who will be called “The Lord Is Our Righteousness.” It is a word of grace that infuses the hope Jeremiah proclaims.     It’s a necessary word, because the people living in exile were losing hope.  Their lives have been dealt a great blow, and their faith in God was faltering.  But Jeremiah remains undaunted.  A time is coming – and soon – when God will “raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the Land.”  This is the day of Israel’s salvation and its embrace of the safety of God’s presence.  When that day arrives, the people will confess “The Lord Is Our Righteousness.”  You would have thought exile would have left Jeremiah a bit nonplussed, especially since his own people tend to reject his leadership.  But such is not the case.  Salvation is at hand.  Israel heard this message of redemption in relation to its land, its home, but what about us.  What is our form of exile?  Where do we feel alone and abandoned?  What word of hope do we need to hear?  Jeremiah says to us – the one who is our righteousness will come, for God is true to God’s promises.  Take hope, keep the faith.

Jeremiah offers a word of hope, and Paul adds to this a word about love.  This passage from 1 Thessalonians speaks of a deep and abiding relationship between founding pastor and the continuing congregation(s) in that Macedonian community.  Paul speaks of the joy that he and his companions have as a result of their relationship with this church, and they long to be reunited – day and night they pray that they could return and be present with them, so that they might complete what is lacking in their faith. 

Love is the foundational word in this passage.  Paul speaks of his own love for them, and prays that their love for each other will increase and be enriched, just as Paul has loved them.  This word about love is deeply relational, but Paul uses this relationship to spur them on to greater heights of faithfulness.  He prays that they would be found blameless in their holiness.  They’re obviously not there yet, but are we?  What is clear is that in this time of anticipation and expectation, community is important.  Paul believes that their growth in spiritual maturity is to be discerned within the strong bonds of this loving community.  Paul feels a sense of responsibility for them, and thus he does pray that he can be with them again to complete what is lacking in their faith journeys, so that they might be prepared when the Lord Jesus comes with his people.    As we hear this word on the first Sunday of this new liturgical cycle, do we (you) know what needs to be completed?  Do you know where God still needs to work in your life?  On this first Sunday of the new cycle, we can and should look back at our lives, so that we might be better prepared to receive God’s Word for our journey ahead.   There remains work to be done – but not just on our own part, but on the part of God who visits us with divine favor.

Our reading from the Gospel of Luke has a clearly apocalyptic tone.  Luke places this message in the midst of Holy Week.  Jesus has entered the city in triumph, but now, teaching in the Temple, the opposition begins to mount.  Jesus, in Luke’s telling of this story, has announced the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem (21:20ff).  It is a word of warning.  There’s nothing soft about this word.  The question is when all this will happen?  What should we expect to see occurring?  It’s a question asked in every age of history – is this the time of God’s unveiling of the new heavens and the new earth?

The passage begins in verse 25 with a word about signs in the sun, moon, and stars.  A day is coming when the seas will roar and the heavens shake.  Then, you will see the Human One, the Son of Man, coming in glory.   When Luke wrote this gospel, Rome had already succeeded in destroying Jerusalem and the Temple.  Christianity was beginning to take shape in a new more Hellenistic form.  People were settling in for the long haul.  And we’ve been settling in for a very long time.  We read apocalyptic texts and either read our own realities into them or simply ignore them.

But here we are on the First Sunday of Advent (or thereabouts), reading these words of expectation.  There is foreboding in them, but also hope.  But what should we take from this passage?   What is the word of hope we take from this?  Perhaps we’re not at that eschatological moment, but we know anxiety and fear.  What word of hope do we find here that will not only sustain us, but empower us? 

Part of the answer is found in the parable of the fig tree, which reminds us that we’ll know when the day is arriving.  We’ll be able to see what is at hand?  When the fig tree begins to sprout leaves, you know that summer is near.  We, who live in colder climes, know that when the blossoms appear, winter is dissipating, and we grow expectant.  A frost may come along and spoil the party, but we know that sooner than later, a new day will come.  So, when you see signs that God’s kingdom is making headway – pay attention.  This is the time when the old passes away and the new emerges.

There are words of warning, calling for alertness as the day of reckoning will come without warning.  There’s no time for drunkenness or drinking parties.  But not only that, don’t let your hearts become dulled by “the anxieties of day-to-day life.”  My sense is that for us, our hearts are dulled less by our partying, and more likely by the anxieties produced by life.  There are bills to pay, things to do, life is busy and we feel unable to keep up – and thus anxiety emerges, keeping us from recognizing the kingdom taking place in our midst. 

When we hear words like this, especially the more apocalyptic forms, it’s easy to toss them aside as irrelevant to life.  There are those who have their heads in spiritual clouds and pay no attention to what is going on earth, but is this necessary?  Perhaps the kingdom is taking shape in our very midst – so may we stay alert to that possibility and while we’re doing so, pray that we’re strong enough to endure the coming of the Human One!

Let us live forward in hope of our redemption!  

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Postcards from Claremont #14 – Thankfulness (Bruce Epperly)

In this, his 14th postcard from Claremont, Bruce Epperly, in the spirit of Thanksgiving (the celebration just past), offers up words of thanks and gratitude for all who helped make his time in Claremont a blessed experience.  During this season of teaching, Bruce has been focusing on Process Theology, which he believes offers the contemporary church and world a way of engaging God's abundance.  May we all share in this word of thanks.  Now Bruce isn't finished -- he's got a few weeks to go, but I want to extend my thanks to him for sharing his thoughts and insights each Wednesday for the past fourteen weeks!


Postcards from Claremont #14  – Thankfulness
Bruce G. Epperly

In a few days, I’ll be returning to Claremont after a few days at the American Academy of Religion Meetings in Chicago and nearly a week at home in Washington DC. Now, in the final weeks of my Claremont adventure, I have much for which to be thankful.

Gratitude is at the heart of the process vision of life.  Process theology affirms the radical interconnectedness of life.  The whole universe is involved in the creation of each moment of experience.  Our lives are created by the interplay our creativity and the impact of the environment.  This fall, my life has been a tapestry of experiences, emerging from the creative synthesis of my academic life in Claremont and my family life in Washington DC.  I have been blessed on both coasts.

As I look toward mid-December and my return to Washington DC, I am inspired by the words of Dag Hammarskjold:

            For all that has been – thanks!
            For all that shall be – yes!

Grounded in my experiences in Claremont, I confidently say “yes” to what will come. I give thanks, first of all, for the opportunity to teach at a world-class seminary and graduate school with intellectually lively and creative students, who have inspired me to explore new aspects of process theology.  I have spent time researching Jung, Buddhism, Korean spirituality, Jainism, and Jewish mysticism in response to my students’ interests.  I am grateful for excellent libraries and places to study, whether at the patio of the village Starbucks or courtyard of the Craig Building at the seminary.  I am grateful for my new seminary friends – for good Mexican food, margaritas, and coffee breaks.  I am grateful for long morning walks, listening to the morning songs of coyotes, and sunset strolls through the Claremont campuses.  I am grateful to a creative Dean, Philip Clayton, who persuaded me to come and to Monica Coleman and Roland Faber, Claremont’s world class process theologians who suggested this academic adventure.

My head has been in Claremont, and my heart has been in Washington DC.  When I’m home in DC every other week, I rejoice in playing with my toddler grandson all through the day and then putting him to sleep at night.  What joy it is to hear him call “Gabby” when he wakes up at our home and then races into my study for a new day’s adventure.  I rejoice in the smile of my youngest grandson less than six months old, walks with his father (my adult son), and lovely dinners with my daughter in law.  Of course, I am grateful for the companionship and support of my 94 year old mother-in-law. 

I am grateful to my wife Kate, first, because of 34 years of marriage that keeps getting better, a true partnership in marriage, ministry, and family.  I would not be at Claremont apart from here willingness to say “yes.”  She encouraged me to come to Claremont even though it would be a hardship for her.  She believes in my academic and professional success and wants me to fulfill my vocation as a theologian and spiritual leader in the church.   She is my biggest supporter and promoter and I am a better theologian because of her love.

So, this postcard is about gratitude; gratefulness for the graceful interdependence of life and to the divine energy that courses that through all things.  This has been a wonderful semester and so I repeat with heartfelt thanks to my Claremont students, faculty and seminary colleagues, and friends and family in DC:

            For all that has been – thanks!
            For all that shall be – yes!

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the PerplexedHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age, and  Emerging Process:  Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church.    His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion, 2012). He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith Lectionary and   He is currently serving as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.  He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

THE REDEEMER DRAWS NEAR -- An Advent Reflection

Today I'm drawing from many years in the past, to a sermon I preached for the first Sunday of Advent in 2000, while serving as pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara, CA.  The gospel for that day is the same gospel as for this coming Sunday.  Since we're doing the Hanging of the Greens on Sunday, and I won't be preaching, I can at least share this message from a previous year.  May it serve as a blessing as you prepare for the coming of the Redeemer.


Luke 21:25-36

The time is near.  The scent is in the air. Christmas is on the horizon.  Yes, Christmas items appeared on store shelves when the Halloween goods came off and with Thanksgiving the Christmas shopping began in earnest.  Many of us have just about wrapped up our Christmas shopping and we have begun to listen to our Christmas CDs.  The Christmas events have already begun:  Brett and I went to the Christmas Parade Friday evening and we all went to a Christmas concert last night.  Yes, the excitement is building as we make our way toward Christmas.   However, even as we wait in anxious anticipation for Christmas to come, we must recognize that for Christians is not yet here, Christmas remains on the horizon.  

While we put up and decorated the Christmas Tree this weekend, our focus is not on it but on the Advent wreath, whose candles are only beginning to be lit.  With this service we begin the time of preparation for the coming of our redeemer, the Messiah, Jesus.  In Advent we travel into the future by way of stories of the past, stories about the announcement to Mary and Mary's song of response, the Magnificat.  We hear about the conception and birth of John the Baptist and we remember his role in preparing the World to receive its redeemer.   Still, our focus is not entirely on the past, for Advent speaks to our future.  At Christmas we affirm that our Redeemer has come in the historical past, but with Advent we are reminded that we as Christ's church await his return to bring the kingdom in its fullness.    

The classic Advent hymn "O come, O come Emmanuel," which we sang this morning, reminds us that our hope is that Emmanuel will draw near to us.   With the Jews of old, we hold out hope that a redeemer, a Messiah, will come for us.  Advent is above all else about hope for the future.  It is not a pie-in-the-sky dream, but a hope rooted in God's gracious acts of mercy in the past.  Israel rooted its hope in the promised messiah in its observation of God's faithfulness.  Like Israel we find our own hope rooted in our encounters with the living God.  Hope is not an opiate that deadens us to the pain of the present.  Rather, hope gives us strength to conquer the mountains that stand before us.  

When Douglas MacArthur told the people of the Philippines:  "I shall return," it may have sounded like arrogant bravado.  Many who heard those words probably discounted them, believing that their destiny lay elsewhere.   But others held out hope that something positive would happen to them in the future.  Eventually MacArthur did return and he liberated the Philippines from Japanese rule.   In a more cosmic setting, Jesus also promised to return.  Yes, he would suffer and die, but he would also return in glory.  In  symbolic language Jesus gave his followers words of hope, words to hang on to during the most difficult of times.


Our text this morning doesn't have the feel of Christmas to it.  Instead, it has the look of a George Lucas screenplay, with special effects galore.  As we hear these words we might want to think of a Death Star or something even more magnificent and deadly.  The strangeness of this text may be a bit off putting, with the words seeming more like science fiction than religious narrative.   Although the apocalyptic language may be foreign to us, the point should not be missed.  The future is in God's hands!

  Though the first advent and the first Christmas took place in a humble stable in a humble town in a backwater nation, the second advent will be much different.  While we must beware of the fanciful interpretations that we find in best-selling novels, movies, and prophecy guidebooks, we must not lose sight of Jesus' promise that God has things under control.  We may experience times of distress, but God is present and active and God will bring things to an equitable resolution.  God has heard the cries of the people and the Redeemer will come and bring the fullness of the kingdom.    

Our text, however, does not focus on the signs, but on the events to which the signs point.  And, to what do these signs point?  Jesus makes it clear:  when you see these things happening, you'll know, your redemption is drawing near.  That is, "I shall return!"  Yes, the one who brings us salvation and redeems humanity will usher in the kingdom of God, for redemption is about God's reign and its establishment in our midst.  Throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament you find descriptions of a promised time when peace will reign, when lamb and lion will lie down together in peace.  Our own existence is anything but peaceful.  Wars and rumors of wars are part of our human experience.  They seem to have always been part of our experience.   Two generations of children have grown up under the threat of nuclear annihilation.  That threat, though diminished, remains with us.  Peace is not ours yet.  But, we hold out hope.  We have heard the promise; it will come.

In the parable of the fig tree, the listener catches something of that promise.  The fig tree was symbolic of peace and prosperity.   The prophet Micah spoke of a time when the Lord would rule, when the people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.  Then, the people would sit under their "own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Mic. 4:3-4).  Jesus said to his disciples: look at the fig tree, when you see the leaves sprouting, you will know that summer is near and that peace is also near.  Now, this peace that Jesus promises is not some kind of humanly brokered peace.  We have heard throughout history promises of peace in our time and they have always fallen short.  True peace therefore must come because of God's rule breaking in on us.


It is possible that the second coming of Christ will be accompanied by magnificent and powerful signs in the heavens and on earth.    Yet, as I noted earlier, too much speculation on the nature of these signs might cause us to miss the point of the passage.  I don't think that Jesus told his disciples this message so that they would keep charts of the heavens so that they wouldn't miss the signs.  Instead, I believe he wants us to hear the closing words of advice, words that benefit those living in every era, not simply in the final moments of human history.

What is his advice?  It is simple:  "be alert!"  "Be on your guard!"  This is a parable about watchfulness, about preparation.  These are good words for us as we enter the Christmas season.  Don't get so caught up in the trappings of life that you miss the signs of God's presence.  I'm not ready to toss out the tree and take back the presents, but I think Jesus would have us temper our enthusiasm for the present Christmas celebration with an awareness of the future in-breaking of God's kingdom.  So, don't get so involved in the world that you live in that you miss the coming of the redeemer.  

These can be strong words of comfort and hope.  Even in our distress we can find strength to go on.  Even when tornadoes or earthquakes strike, even when life is in jeopardy, we can take heart, our redeemer is near.   God calls us to place our hope in our redeemer.  There is no need to worry; instead be in prayer and expect God to act.

May the Advent-Christmas season, in all its joyous celebration, remind us that the redeemer is drawing near.  Having been reminded of the promised coming of our redeemer, may we make the most of our time in the present to prepare for the blessings of the future.  Therefore, be alert, watch and see what God does in your midst, for there is hope for the future!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Whatcha Buying on Cyber Monday? I've got some suggestions!

It's Cyber-Monday, a day to do your holiday shopping on-line.  And of course there are lots of options out there.  But may I suggest a few of my own books:

Now you could buy Rowan Williams' book Faith in the Public Square, and as the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury he has some cache, but especially if you're an American, I'd suggest checking out my version of the story.   It also has the title of Faith in the Public Square.  It contains more than fifty brief reflections originally published (with some modification) as op-ed pieces for a local newspaper.  It should serve as a great conversation starter at the dinner table!  And it's only $6.99 on Kindle, Nook, and I-books.

If you're into praying the Lord's Prayer, and many of us use this prayer on a regular basis, perhaps it's time to do a bit of reflecting on its meaning.  Now, you could read John Dominic Crossan's book on the Lord's Prayer --The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer -- but you might want to check out my take on the prayer: Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer.  And it's only $2.99 for Kindle, Nook, and I-books.

My publisher at Energion Publications has a big sale going on as well -- everything is 30% off until December 20th.  So you might check that out as well.  I have three books out with them, but there are books by folks like Bruce Epperly, William Powell Tuck, Robert LaRochelle, and Allan Bevere as well!

And if you just want to do some Amazon Shopping, well just enter through my portal!!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What Kind of King Are You? -- A Sermon

John 18:33-37

The election season is over, so isn’t it time to get on with life. After all there’s work to be done.  Remember there’s that fiscal cliff to resolve, immigration reform to tackle, and then there’s the ongoing implementation of the Affordable Care Act.  Besides all of this there are roads and bridges that need to be built or repaired.  The laundry list is long and getting longer.  And that’s just the stuff on our government’s plate.  As for us, the Christmas shopping season is racing into top gear!  

Although we all seem to enjoy complaining about politics and politicians, isn’t it human nature to complain about the people in power.  At least in this country, if you don’t like ‘em, you can toss ‘em out.  Though with gerrymandering that’s sort of difficult! 

But, what if we lived instead under the rule of divinely sanctioned hereditary monarchs.  Wouldn’t that be better?  Although there are those who raise the cry Vox populi, vox Dei.  That’s Latin for “The Voice of the people is the Voice of God.”  The 8th century English clergyman Alcuin, writing to Charlemagne, begged to differ.  He wrote to the Emperor:
And those people should not be listened to who keep saying the voice of the people is the voice of God, since the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness.
He may be right!  
Since today is Christ the King Sunday, which brings to a close the liturgical or church year, we get to ask the question – what does the kingdom of God look like?  If Jesus is king, then what kind of king is he?  Is he any different from other rulers, whether hereditary monarchs, military dictators, or elected presidents?  

A week from now we will begin a new cycle, and we’ll hear a word of warning – be prepared, be awake, the king is coming!  But what should we look for in this coming king?   In the 18th chapter of John, Jesus stands before Pilate.  As governor, Pilate represents the power of Rome, and in this version of the gospel story, the religious leaders hand over Jesus so that he could be tried for treason.  After all, why would Pilate ask: “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

When we read the Gospel of John we need to keep in mind the animosity that was brewing between an emergent Christianity and the Jewish community out of which it had emerged.  It’s a form of animosity we need to be aware of and steer clear of.

As you hear Pilate’s question to Jesus, does it resonate with you?  Does it matter who Jesus is?  What he’s up to?  If you consider yourself to be a follower of this person who stands before Pilate, accused of treason, what does this mean for you?  

Although the Romans permitted certain royal families across the empire to retain their titles, these kings and queens always understood who was in charge. They kept their thrones only as long as Caesar permitted, but Jesus never went to Rome to ask for permission to take his throne.  So Pilate wants to know – if you say you’re a king, what kind of king are you?  

When you sang our opening hymn this morning which proclaims Christ to be king, what kind of king did you imagine him to be?  Think about these words:  
“Rejoice, the Lord is King!  The risen Christ adore!  Rejoice, give thanks, and sing, and triumph evermore: lift up your heart, lift up your voice!  Rejoice, again I say rejoice!”   
Or what is the message of another powerful hymn, which we’ll be singing in a moment:  
“Jesus shall reign where’re the sun does its successive journeys run; 

his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons wax and wane no more.”  
Yes, what kind of King is Jesus? 

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with these words:  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  Oh, I get it, he’s a heavenly king, a religious figure, no need to worry about his interfering with human affairs.  Jesus isn’t interested in politics, just saving souls for the hereafter.  Isn’t that the way this statement is often interpreted? 

But is that what Jesus meant?  When we hear Jesus speak of the kingdom of God, and he talks a lot about the kingdom or realm of God, what does he have in mind?  When Jesus told the gathered throng sitting on the hillside to “seek first the kingdom,” what did he mean?  (Mt. 6:33).  Or, when we recite that prayer Jesus taught the disciples, a prayer we pray each Sunday, what do these words mean: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Is this just a heavenly prayer?   No, we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.”  

So is Jesus’ kingdom just a heavenly realm, or does it have meaning for the here and now?  

If we read that statement from John 18 from the Common English Bible we might get a better sense of what Jesus meant for us to hear.  It reads: “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.  If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish Leaders.  My kingdom isn’t from here.”  It’s not that Jesus doesn’t reign on earth, it just means that the nature of his reign is different.  

Jesus tends to turn things upside down.  He says things like the “first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”   He says, bring me the children, because the kingdom belongs to them (Mk. 10:13-16).  And when James and John ask Jesus to get the best  seats in the heavenly throne room, which by the way makes the other disciples mad that they didn’t get there first, Jesus responds by telling them that “among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.  But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10:41-44).   

Jesus answers Pilate by telling him that his kingdom has a different origin from that of Caesar.  Caesar may think he’s the Son of God, but Jesus is the true heavenly king, who reigns on earth as in heaven, and his vision of the kingdom is very different.  His kingdom will be inaugurated not with armies, but through the agency of the cross. 

Jesus’ vision of power is different from that envisioned by Caesar, Charlemagne, or even the President of the United States, though people like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero understood.  

When Jesus stood there in the presence of Caesar’s representative, he embodied the kingdom of God.  He didn’t do so as the representative of a merely spiritual kingdom, but as the representative of a quite earthly kingdom, just one that took on a very different form.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says that this kingdom is as “earthly as Jesus himself was.”  And not only that, when we look at the world through the cross of Jesus, “the kingdom of God is ineradicably implanted on this earth.  With the resurrection of the crucified Christ the rebirth of the whole tormented creation begins.  So ‘remain true to the earth’!  For the earth is worth it.”1  Jesus reigns over this earth, which God loves fully and completely.  And therefore, as representatives of this realm of God, we’re entrusted with the care of the earth and all its inhabitants.  

Yes, what kind of king is this whose “love shall spread from shore to shore till moons wax and wane no more?”  

Perhaps the answer can be found in the words of Barbara Lundblad, a Professor at Union Theological Seminary:
Jesus is a king who never rose so high that he couldn’t see those who were down low. Even today, we see Jesus in tent cities where people live together after losing their homes to foreclosure. We see Jesus in public housing where people are still waiting for the power to come on after the storm. We see Jesus in shelters where women have sought refuge from abusers. 

If we would see Jesus, we will look in places kings seldom go.2
Yes, if we wish to see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and the Omega, we’ll have to go where kings seldom go, but where Jesus is now present on earth as in heaven.   

1. Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today’s World, (Fortress Press, 1994), p. 20.  
2. Barbara Lundblad, “A Different King of King.” –

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2012

Saturday, November 24, 2012

LIVING COUNTERTESTIMONY: Conversations with Walter Brueggemann -- A Review

LIVING COUNTERTERSTIMONY: Conversations With Walter Brueggemann.  By Walter Brueggemann with Carolyn J. Sharp.  Foreword by Samuel E. Balentine.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.  Xi +199 pages.

        There are figures in every field of endeavor who seem larger than life.  They seem to stand apart and above the rest.  It’s not that they’re celebrities, but they have left their mark on life, and has a result they've influenced and impacted many people.  When you have the opportunity to meet and even enter conversation with them, they become more human and accessible, but in the end you know you have been blessed to have shared in the conversation.
This past summer I had the privilege of participating in a conversation with Walter Brueggemann, one of the foremost and influential biblical scholars of our day.  His books line the shelves of many a preacher, including my own.  He is a preacher’s scholar, a person able to push through the minutiae to the heart of issues.  He sees in the text of the Hebrew Bible words that speak not only to an earlier day, but to our day as well.  Scripture isn't merely an ancient word, it is a word that continues to make itself felt in the lives of those who heed it to the present day.

My opportunity to enter into conversation with Dr. Brueggemann came at a preacher’s conference.  I led a panel that engaged our presenter in conversation about his book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word(Fortress, 2012).  The presentations that led up to that conversation had roiled the emotions and the imaginations of many in the room.  You see, this was a more conservative gathering, and Brueggemann offered challenging, indeed prophetic, statements about the current state of affairs in our world.  It was my responsibility to help soothe the nerves so that the people gathered could hear the voice of this master of biblical as well as political interpretation.  We did okay.  Nerves were settled, but imaginations were set afire.

In Living Countertestimony, the reader is drawn into a series of conversations with Dr. Brueggemann.  These conversations occur over a period of four years, beginning with a conversation at an SBL dinner between colleagues in 2008 and ends with a dialog with Brueggemann’s long time friend and colleague in the study of the Old Testament Terence Fretheim.  Included in this collection is a sermon preached by Brueggemann at Trinity Church, Copley Square, in Boston on March 20, 2011.  A majority of the conversations run between Brueggemann and Carolyn Sharp, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures at Yale Divinity School.

In the course of these conversations we come to see how well-respected Brueggemann is among his colleagues, but also the humility and sense of inadequacy of Brueggemann himself.  Although considered among the leading scholars of the Old Testament alive today, he confesses to having considerable struggles with the biblical languages.  They didn’t come easily for him, and he doesn’t feel as competent in them as he would like.  We who read his works would not expect such feelings, but here they are confessed.  What is true of his adeptness with language, he confesses a certain feeling of inadequacy in his academic preparation.  He holds at Th.D. from Union Theological Seminary.  As holder of a Ph.D. from a seminary, I have a sense of what he might feel.  There is a certain hierarchy of graduate programs in America, and a Th.D. from Union, while it might be an excellent education will rank below a Ph.D. from Harvard, Yale, or Chicago – in the eyes of many.  It’s this sense of inadequacy that led him later in life to earn a Ph.D. in education.  He also confesses that this sense of not measuring up may have spurred on some of his prodigious writing efforts.  And to know how prodigious he has been (and he’s not finished yet), one need only look at the bibliography at the end of this book, covering thirty-four pages.   

There are the scholarly aspects of the conversation, but there are also the spiritual and the human dimensions.  As one who struggles with prayer myself, it was helpful to hear this writer of beautiful prayers confess his own struggle with sustaining a disciplined practice of daily prayer. 

As you read the transcripts of these conversations you come to know this scholar, teacher, preacher, human being, in a new way.  He may still sit high on your shelves, but he becomes more human, more accessible.  You discover that he believes that the biblical text has value for the modern Christian, and that we need to pay attention to its theology.  He confesses frustration with some progressive co-religionists who walk away from the text, or at least begin and end with the historical critical dimensions rather than struggle with its meaning and implications.  Consider this word concerning the guild. 

Biblical scholars, in my view, need to be players in the interdisciplinary work of contesting for a viable social world.  To the extent that our work is preoccupied with critical matters, to the extent we have in many ways said that the big issues are to be left to others who can work from our criticism.  I think this is a cop-out, and a down-playing of the deeply revolutionary, problematic text with which we work.  This is not a plea for “relevance” or “contemporaneity” as much as it is a bid to recognize what it is that has been entrusted to us in this text.  This entrustment requires a push beyond the expectations of graduate school over which we may linger too long.    (pp. 81-82).
And that is what we have received from this scholar. 

            If you wish to know the heart of a scholar committed not only to the welfare of the church but of the creation itself, then this is a book worth considering.  If you’re a preacher and you have benefited from Walter Brueggemann’s many works, you’ll want to spend some time with this book so you can know the heart of the man.  Many thanks go to Carolyn Sharp for drawing together these conversations so that we might enjoy the fruit.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holy Days (Pope Benedict XVI) -- Review

HOLY DAYS: Meditations on the Feasts, Fasts, and Other Solemnities of the Church.   By Pope Benedict XVI.  Edited and Annotated by Jean-Michel Coulet.  Introduction and Annotations Translated by D.C. Schindler.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012.  viii + 86 pages.

For many Protestants the Liturgical Year is a rather new invention, but for Roman Catholics it has set the cycle for spiritual life for centuries. The number of feasts, fasts, and solemnities is vaster among Roman Catholics as well.  When the Liturgical Renewal Movement hit Protestantism in the 1950s and 1960s it began to loosen up long held views that whatever was Roman was bad.  As a  result we began to learn from Rome and as a result deepen our own spirituality.

Pope Benedict XVI is a more traditional Catholic, and many of us outside and inside that church have despaired at what many see as retrenchment and movement away from the reforms of Vatican II.  That being said, our disappointment with the direction of the church under the leadership of the current Pope needn't keep us from listening and learning from his own spirituality.

In Holy Days, the Pope provides brief meditations drawn from homilies and other writings that illuminate the liturgical journey. In the course of this brief book we are offered the Pope's thoughts on feasts and fasts celebrated by the Catholic Church, starting with "the first vespers of Advent" and concluding with "Christ the King Sunday." Many of the feasts are celebrated in common by Protestants, but others, especially the Marian feasts are not.  Still, even if we don't share the Catholic understanding of Mary, we can be reminded of her role in the biblical story.  Too often we neglect her role, due in part to a resistance to traditional Catholic veneration of her.  The meditations, as I read them, are basic, foundational, and traditional.  Benedict is conservative and so we won't find any boundary-pushing thoughts present.

So why might we engage these meditations?  I think an answer could be found in the words of the Introduction written by Jean-Michel Coulet.  He notes that in this increasingly secularized age it's important to rediscover spiritual practices that can form and deepen our spiritual paths.  One of the practices that can be renewed is a focus on liturgical time as a way of setting patterns for life that are in sync with the divine.  Coulet writes:
We have to learn to know and live liturgical time by recalling, again and again, that this time is nourished by a constant relationship between tradition and progress.  These two concepts complement each other harmoniously, because tradition is a living reality, and includes within itself the see of development, of progress.  Liturgy is an ensemble of acts, symbols, and words, by means of which the Church, made up of women and men, offers worship to God and hands down the knowledge of God to others.  The definitive goal always remains the glory of God and the sanctification of his people. (p. vii).  

The meditations are traditional and may not excite the reader, and yet the simple act of walking through the liturgical year in the company of the best known Christian leader alive today is a worthwhile venture.  This is especially true if, like me, you have concluded that the way forward includes keeping connected to the traditions that link us to the biblical story.  Perhaps this can be a vehicle for deepening one's connection to that tradition, even as we look forward into the future of God's reign.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Thanksgiving Prayer -- All Good Gifts

It is Thanksgiving Day, and we can give thanks for all of God's wondrous gifts.  I've always loved this song from Godspell, which is based on an old Thanksgiving Hymn.  I found this at YouTube, and the visuals are a worthy accompaniment to the music.

Have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

If Jesus is King, How Does He Reign? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday

2 Samuel 23:1-7

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

If Jesus is King, 
How Does He Reign?

            As the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday (Reign of Christ Sunday), it faces a question – what does it mean for Jesus to reign?  Isaac Watts’ hymn, which my congregation will be sharing on Sunday, declares that “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does its successive journeys run; his love shall spread from shore to shore till moons shall wax and wane no more.” Is Watts equating reign and love?  Can we abide such a definition of the reign of Christ?  Pushing further, are we ready to affirm that Christ does reign?

            A monarch from the 1st century CE was of a different breed from most of today’s monarchs.  Modern Americans likely envision kings and queens existing in the image of Elizabeth II, a figure head, who has no real power, except that of personality.  We have Presidents here – they have great power and are often spoken of as being the “most powerful person in the world,” but whatever power President Obama has, it’s nothing like that exercised by Caesar.  So what does it mean for us to declare Christ to be King?  What allegiance are we willing to give?  In our three texts we find reflections on this question, reflections worth considering as we think about our relationship with God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

            In the reading from 2 Samuel 23, the narrator declares that these are the “Last Words of David.”  There are actually words that follow, but these stand out as David’s testament.  He was, according to the narrative, “a man raised high, a man anointed by the God of Jacob, a man honored by the strong one of Israel” (vs. 1). He is one who God has raised up to reign.  In time he becomes the model, the exemplar – yes he has frailties, but they are cast aside as we’re led to remember the qualities that the truly great rulers should exhibit.  He is a prophet, for the Spirit of the Lord speaks through him.  And the word that is spoken is this:   “Whoever rules rightly over people, whoever rules in the fear of God, is like the light of sunrise on a morning with no clouds, like the bright gleam after the rain that brings grass from the ground.”  To rule correctly, is to rule in the fear of God.  It is, as the text goes on to declare – living out of the covenant that God makes with David.  Oh, and as for the enemies – they’ll be dealt with harshly.  There is a word of hope and a word of judgment.  I’m not sure what to make of the word of judgment, but the word of hope calls on those who lead to do so in concert with God.

            The word from Revelation invites us to envision the coming of God’s kingdom with power and glory.  Jesus is depicted here as the king of kings who both loves us and frees us from our sins through his own blood.  As a result, we are made a kingdom of priests.  If we’re to envision the kingdom or realm of God then we’ll need to understand our own role in this.  Jesus is the ruler, the deliverer, faithful witness, first born of the dead.  Yes, he is the Alpha and Omega – first and last.  Is the one “who is and was and is to come.  There is a universalizing of the vision.  In Christ we are drawn into the fullness of God’s presence.  For the panentheists among us, perhaps this is a way of envisioning how creation is enfolded into the divine.  God is in us and we are in God, though, of course, there is transcendence present in this concept of immanence.  But back to that vision of being made into a “kingdom of priests,” it is a good word to remember.  It is a reminder that the people of God need no intermediaries between themselves and God, and yet at the same time we can serve as intercessors for each other.  If all are priests, then there is equality of our presence before God.  We can enter the holy of holies with boldness, as our reading for Hebrews a week previous reminded us (Heb. 1:19-22).   As that kingdom of priests, we share in Christ’s reign of goodness, of love, of mercy, and justice, interceding for creation, even as all things are made new.

            As we come to the gospel reading from John, it may seem odd to have a text that might be read on Good Friday standing in for Christ the King Sunday, but the questions posed are important ones for us to consider.  The point isn’t just whether Jesus is king, but what kind of king will he be?  Pilate understands monarchy and power through the lens of empire.  He is a representative of Rome’s control.  He sees in Jesus merely a pretender, a person with a following but no real power.  For Pilate and for imperialists in general, might makes right.  The person with the most guns and ammunition holds all the cards.  Living as I do in a nation that has come to see itself as the sole remaining superpower, whose military budget outstrips all of its rivals many times over, I have a ringside seat – as do most of you who read these words – to this reality.  President Obama may not have all the powers inherent in monarchy, but he is able to exercise considerable power, if for no other reason – he has the codes that can decide the future existence of this world.  We’ve avoided nuclear conflagration for the entirety of my life of more than half a century, but should the orders be given things could change rapidly.

            Pilate understood the politics of military power, which is why he wouldn’t have taken Jesus as a serious threat.  He saw Jesus as a pretender to a non-existent throne.  He might be interested in the reason why Jesus was brought before him, but more likely he was annoyed at being bothered by another pretender.

            Jesus’ answer is a bit coy – as is often the case in John’s Gospel.  He doesn’t come outright and say – yes I’m King of the Jews, but he does accept the premise that he is a representative of the heavenly kingdom.  If you must call me a king, he seems to be saying, then understand that “my kingdom doesn’t originate from this world.”  Too often Christians have read these words in such a way as to devalue earthly experience.  Too often we pine for our departure from this life to that of the next.  Our earthly goal, some believe, is to make our escape and leave the world and its challenges behind.  But is that what Jesus has in mind?

            If we look to the Lord’s Prayer, which doesn’t appear in John’s Gospel, for help, let us remember that important statement in the prayer:  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”   I appreciate Jūrgen Moltmann’s interpretation of this verse from John.  He notes that when Jesus says that the kingdom of God is not of this world, he means origin not location.  With this in mind, he writes: “It comes from God.  If it didn’t come from God it couldn’t heal the sick of this world.  But in and through Jesus it is in the midst of the world, and when Jesus said these words the Kingdom of God in person was standing in front of Rome’s imperial governor, Pontius Pilate.”[i]    Moltmann goes on to note that this kingdom has both invisible and visible dimensions, but it is “as earthly as Jesus himself was.”  It is revealed through and implanted through the cross and the resurrection, and the resulting message is that “the earth is worth it.”  It’s not a vision of escape, but being present in and through Christ in the world so that Christ might redeem and transform it.  As king, Jesus says, his purpose is to bear witness to the truth.  Pilate might want to debate the notion of truth, but Jesus reveals it in his being, for truth is the realm of God revealed in his life here on earth as well as in heaven.

            What then is our response to Jesus’ claim to rule?  What difference does it make?  What claim is made on our allegiance?  If we are to seek first the realm of God (Matthew 6:33), what does this mean in relation to the church, to the nation, to the economy, even our own identity.  Where is our ultimate allegiance? 

            When the journey of the church year began a year ago with the first Sunday of Advent, our focus was on the promise and the need to prepare for the coming of God’s realm in ways we might not have anticipated – not with imperial might for example – and now we come to the end of the journey (only to begin again with a new season of Advent).  Rather than end with David’s words of judgment on his enemies, let us instead look forward with anticipation to the coming of the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end – the one who was, is and is to come.   Or to cast it in the words of Watt’s hymn:  “let every creature rise with son; honor and praise to Christ belong; angels descend with songs again, and earth repeat loud amen!  Let us do so -- on earth as in heaven.  

[i] Jurgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today's World(Fortress Press, 1994), p. 20.