Thursday, May 30, 2013

God Provides for Us -- Proper 5 (David Ackerman)

We continue sharing David Ackerman's liturgical materials that take us beyond the lectionary. As anyone who uses the lectionary knows, it doesn't cover all the texts. With his new book, Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary, and with these liturgical materials, David Ackerman, a United Church of Christ pastor, offers us an alternative (perhaps used as year 4).

This set of liturgical materials is designed for use on June 9th.


Proper 5

June 9, 2013
“God Provides for Us”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 12 (vv 1-2, 5-7) NRSV
One:  Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly; the faithful have disappeared from humankind.  They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
Many:  “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
One:  The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure; silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
Many:  You, O Lord, will protect us; you will guard us from this generation forever.
Gathering Prayer:  As we gather together today, God, we thank you that you have brought us safely to this time and place.  As we prepare to embrace new challenges, help us to trust that you will provide and care for us.  May we respond to your faithfulness to us by being bold in proclaiming your good news in this world!  Amen.
Confession:  God, we confess that we have not trusted in your provision for us.  We have been cowardly and have tried to hide our guilt from you by lying to ourselves and others.  You know the truth, God!  Forgive us for our failure to have the faith in you that we should, and help us to change so that we might be confident in your care for us.  Amen.
Assurance:  God knows that we are frightened of many things and filled with doubts and misgivings.  Yet despite all that God comes to us and encourages us with grace beyond our deserving.  God strengthens us so that we may be a source of strength and inspiration to others.  Thanks be to God for this deep and wondrous gift!  Amen.
Scriptures:  Genesis 27:1-10, 18-19, 26-33, 38-40 – “Jacob and Esau”
Acts 4:23-31 – “They Spoke with Boldness”
Matthew 17:24-27 – “The Fish and the Coin”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection questions:
The story of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 27 is one that sounds unfair to our 21st century ears.  Why is Jacob favored when he is deceptive, and why does Esau not get a better blessing when he looks to be an innocent victim?  What do you think is really happening here?  What was the author’s point in telling this story?
Today’s selection from Matthew 17 relates the tale of the coin in the fish’s mouth.   How is this story a sign of God’s provision for Jesus’ disciples?
In Acts 4, when the disciples gather together, what happens that leads them to speak “the word of God with boldness (v 31)?”
How does God provide for us?  How does that help us to share God’s good news boldly?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  We thank you, God, for providing for us.  So often we are anxious about how we are going to make it through the hardships of life.  Remind us that your Spirit gives us an abundant life that transcends any material satisfaction that this world can offer.  We pray that this assurance will inspire us to live courageously in a world of fear and despair.  Amen.
Benediction:  Now let us go, trusting in God’s provision for us, to share with boldness God’s good news.  Amen.

Reposted from:

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Who Sets the Boundaries? A Lectionary Reflection -- Pentecost 2C

1 Kings 18:20-21, 30-39

Galatians 1:1-12

Luke 7:1-10

Who Sets the Boundaries?

            Who is on the inside and who is on the outside?  And who sets the boundaries?  Who decides who gets to be a member and who doesn’t?  What’s the criteria?  It is important to know one’s identity, where one belongs.  But, on the other hand, if God is the one who sets boundaries, can God move them here and there? 

We ask – what is faith?  We ask – what is the gospel?  Paul writes to the Galatians and tells them not to believe anything that contradicts what they were first taught by Paul.  Elijah tells the Israelites – you have to choose – the Lord or Baal.  And yet, Jesus finds faith in an unexpected place – in the life of a Roman soldier.   Boundaries are important, but it seems as if God has permission to move them!

            We’ve come through the long season of Easter.  We’ve reflected on the meaning of the Cross and the Resurrection.  We’ve heard the promise of Pentecost and a word about the Triune nature of God.  Through all of this we have been reminded that God is revealed to us in ways that transform and reconcile the universe.  Having already heard the story of one Centurion who responds to the Gospel (Acts 10), we hear another here.  As Pope Francis reminded us recently, God can make God’s self known to and redeem even those who seem unlikely candidates – even atheists.  It is clear from the biblical text that God can find faith in unexpected places, and lives will then be changed. 

            That being said, it is important that we remember whom it is we worship and serve.  As Douglas John Hall suggests in his most recent book, when all the clutter is cleared away, when we are able to discern that which Christianity is not, the false alternatives, then maybe we can better view that which defines Christianity.  He suggests that there is a space at the center, where we can discern the face of Christianity. And the answer is – Jesus Christ.  When all is said and done, the gospel is focused on Jesus.  In the first century Mediterranean world, Caesar was Lord and Savior.  But, for early Christians there was but one Lord – and that person is Jesus.  Interestingly, two Roman soldiers are counted among those who seem to understand this truth. Hall writes:
We may not be able to name the Christianity of the future, but we know better now what Name that Christianity will have to name.  And we know better than before, if we have been studying the face of contemporary humankind and the plight of our small blue planet, what kind of face that Name must convey if it is really to speak to us in all the confusion, threat, and fugitive promise of our species.  It is the face of “Jesus Christ . . . and him crucified.”[i]
Boundaries are important, but only in relationship to the center.  Not every profession of faith is of equal value.  Some theologies are demeaning both to God and to humanity.  We needn’t affirm the validity of every theology in order to welcome the other into our midst – or allow ourselves to be welcomed by the other.    

            There are two texts that speak of boundaries – 1 Kings 18 and Galatians 1 – while the third text opens the doors.  As we try to hear the voice of God in these texts, perhaps we need to hear both voices.

            The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is well known.  The preparers of the lectionary leave out the “battle” between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.  We don’t get to hear Elijah mock his opponents who can’t seem to get Baal to light their altar fire.  Perhaps they should have brought in the Doors to sing for them.  They try hard but fail to get their way.  Then, in our passage, Elijah gets his turn.  Ahab had been seduced by his “foreign” wife to allow the prophets and priests of her home religion to have control of the nation’s religious life.  Elijah is on the margins, but he doesn’t seem at all afraid.  So, he challenges the prophets of Baal to this contest.  When they fail to achieve success, Elijah makes sure everyone knows that Yahweh is the victor. 

            After the Baal prophets fail, Elijah gathers the people close to him on Mt. Carmel, and invites them to help him build a large altar of stones, and then dig a moat around it, filling it with water.  He also poured water on the sacrificial pier.  Only then, after Elijah made it look like it would be impossible to light the sacrifice, does he turn to God and pray.  And he tells God to answer in a way that would make it clear to everyone who was Lord, who is the one true God.  If God is going to answer his prayers, Elijah wants to leave no doubts about who is in charge.  And if as on cue, God answers by consuming everything with divine fire – not just the sacrifice, but the wood, the stones, and the dust, even licking up the water in the trench.  There should be no doubt now.  So choose God!!  Of course as the story goes on, the people keep on following a different path.  It just shows how fickle we are!  But God has made it clear who is in charge. 

            The backdrop to the reading from Galatians is the apparent attempt by an outside group to introduce a legalistic version of the Christian faith into this newly formed Christian community.  This teaching centered on the place of circumcision, which was a marker of Jewish life.  The debate going on in the church at the time concerned the degree to which Jewish law and custom should define the Christian community.  The message that Paul preaches distinguishes between that which is necessary for life in the community and that which is not.  Circumcision has its place within Judaism, but he’s not of the opinion that Gentiles, many of whom found this requirement to be an unbreachable barrier to baptism, is necessary.  Instead of making this requirement, Paul preached a message of divine grace received by faith.  After Paul moves on a group comes to the community challenging this position, and in doing so misrepresent Judaism.   As Paul writes this letter he seeks to reinforce the earlier message that God’s grace not circumcision was the marker of one’s place in the community.  In making this plea, Paul is raising the question of authority.  Who represents the wisdom of God?  Paul may seem arrogant, but he makes the claim that he had introduced them to the Gospel and that this outside group was seeking to confuse them and change the Gospel of Christ.  He is so adamant about this that he pronounces a curse on anyone teaching something different.

            So what is the basis of his authority?  He claims here that the Gospel he preaches isn’t of human origin.  He didn’t learn it from any human teacher.  Instead, he received it as direct revelation from Jesus Christ.  Of course the question is – how do we know this to be true?  That is the task of discernment.  Where does the truth lie? 

            If the first two readings focus on boundaries, the reading from the Gospel of Luke reminds us that God can reach beyond them.  Faith can be found in the most unlikely places.  In this case it’s a Roman Centurion.  Like Cornelius in Acts 10, this Centurion is known for his respect for and even devotion to the Jewish faith.  He is described as loving the Jewish people, going so far as building a synagogue in Capernaum.  Those who come to Jesus and make a request of him are the leaders of this Jewish community.  They come bearing news that a servant of this Centurion, a servant who was very important to him, was dying. They came hoping that Jesus would bring healing to this servant. 

            “And Jesus went with them” (vs. 6 CEB).  Unlike Peter, Jesus didn’t need a divine revelation.  He heard the call and went with the group toward the Centurion’s house.  But before they could reach the house, the Centurion sent word to Jesus.  His representatives told Jesus that he needn’t come any further.  There is a sense here that the Centurion understood Jewish law, that it would be inappropriate for a Jew to enter a Gentile home (the problem facing Peter as well).  Thus, the claim that he isn’t worthy of Jesus’ visit.  The Centurion, however, does offer a solution.  He understands the chain of command.  He understands authority.  All Jesus needs to do is say the word and the servant will be healed.  The result is that the servant is healed.  But the key point is Jesus’ own observation – his recognition of the faith that the Centurion expressed.  Not even in Israel, among his people, did he find such faith. 

           Jesus never enters the Centurion’s home.  He never faces the dilemma that would come from such an act.  There’s no sense here that the Centurion became a disciple of Jesus --  unlike Cornelius.  He was simply the beneficiary of divine grace.  This raises important questions about the way God works.  Could God work outside the church?  Even if the church is the normal means of divine work, is God limited by the boundaries? 

As we think about this question of how and where God works, what boundaries there may be, we might well heed the words of Pope Francis, mentioned above, who offered a rather broad definition of the redeemed.  He even posed the possibility that atheists might be among the redeemed.  How do we know?  Francis suggested that it is in the fruit, the good works, that we know this truth.  It’s not that anything goes, but it does mean that there are many who don’t believe as do we, and yet they offer signs of God’s grace in their lives.  In offering this view Francis wasn’t saying anything new.  It’s just a bit unexpected in this day when the choices appear to be “anything goes” or rigid boundaries.

For Christians, there is a need to recognize our center – the one who defines for us what is real and what is true.  We name this center Jesus.  As we tend to this center then the boundaries take care of themselves, and we are freed to represent and live the gospel of grace.

[i] Douglas John Hall, What Christianity Is Not: An Exercise in 'Negative' Theology(Eugene, OR:  Cascade Books, 2013), p. 162.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Gift of Beauty and the DIA

                It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  If you go to an art museum you will find many varieties of artwork.  Some pieces of art almost seem to be photographs as they seem to accurately portray a scene.  Others are quite abstract.  We all have our preferences.  I’m not that into abstract art.  But just because I’m not as attracted to Picasso as is someone else, doesn’t mean that one or the other of us doesn’t appreciate good art.  One could say something similar about music.  One prefers Miles Davis, another Bach, and another Jayzee.  Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but life needs beauty to flourish.
                In the first creation story (Genesis 1), God comments after each act of creation, pronouncing what God sees as good.  God looks at creation and appreciates its beauty, its perfection, its grace.  There is much in life that isn’t beautiful, but without something of beauty to catch our hearts we’re liable to fall into despair. 

                This brings me to the point of my post.  Last week we heard that the Emergency Manager for Detroit put the Detroit Institute of Arts, better known simply as the DIA, on notice.  In efforts to right the ship of Detroit, the city’s creditors could demand the sale of assets, including valuable pieces ofthe DIA’s collection.  There has already been much debate on this matter.  Some say that the art is sacrosanct and can’t be sacrificed, even though some of the art could fetch upwards of a $150 million (for just one piece).  As an advocate for social justice I can understand the need to put the lives of people above art.  But, I also know that if a city’s treasures, its sources of beauty and inspiration, are taken from it, it loses its heart and soul.  A few bills might get paid, but at what cost to the life blood of a city? 

                Just over a year ago the suburbs of Detroit were asked to increase property taxes to support the DIA for a period of ten years.  Majorities in each county said yes – and in exchange we get free access to the museum (paying only for special exhibits).  Whether or not you’ve been to the museum (I have and it is a wonderful museum), it is a treasure, not only for the city but the region and the state.  It is a destination, and because it is open to the entire local public without charge that means that it no longer is the domain of an elite.  It is a place where all can enjoy the fruits and be inspired.  Taking away the treasures, would take away a source of beauty that might inspire the children of Detroit and the surrounding areas to let their imaginations go free, so that they can experience the blessings of God’s gift of creativity. 

                I understand that things are difficult in Detroit.  I have committed myself through the work of Motown Mission, Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope ministries to make a difference in the city.  Part of my reason for being involved in the Metro Coalition of Congregations, which seeks to organize in the suburbs for social justice, is that I see this as a first step to a broader partnership for the good of the entire region.  So, I’m not suggesting that we protect the DIA for the good of a wealthier elite living in the suburbs.  No, I am advocating for the protection of the DIA for the good of us all, so that we as a region, rich and poor, might have the benefit of this gift of beauty that life might flourish among us. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Thoughts

Many of us here in the United States have a "day off" today so that we might remember those who have died, especially in service to country.  The holiday began as Decoration Day and was a day of remembrance of those persons who died in the Civil War.  It was a day decorate the graves of the fallen. Over time as more wars were added to the American experience, the purpose of the day expanded to include those who had fallen in other wars.

Memorial Day continues to lift up those who have died, but it has taken on a broader cultural dynamic.  It is the unofficial beginning of summer.  School is out or will be out soon.  Vacations are being embarked upon.  We barbecue/grill burgers and chicken and maybe buy furniture (at least that's what the advertisements hope we'll do).  You might even do some yard work that needs attending to!  Oh, and Cheryl and I might go to the new Star Trek movie.  It is, therefore, a day to have a bit of fun (so why am I blogging? -- It's a habit).

But back to the meaning of the day.  We're invited to remember those who have passed on from this life.  I've always tried to think of it in broader terms than simply those who have died in wars.  It is good for us to remember our ancestors, those persons who no longer walk with us, people who have influenced our lives for the better.  Perhaps it is a parent or grandparent, a teacher, a neighbor.  As a pastor I remember those who have died in the past year, whose contributions to the life of the congregation will be missed greatly.

So, perhaps we can pause for a moment and offer a word of prayer:

Gracious God,
You are our creator.  Before all things began, you were there.
You are the holder of all memories.
All those whom we love who no longer walk with us, they are present with you.
Rekindle in our hearts and our minds their memories,
so that living in the present, we can remember and honor their lives.
Rekindle in our hearts and minds the lessons and examples 
that our beloved ones left us,
so that we might live faithful and productive lives in the present and in the future.
May these memories be a blessing to us now and forevermore.
And may we also remember Jesus, who gathered his disciples, gave them a meal, and said:
Do this in remembrance of Me.
May this memory become alive in us once again.


Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Voice of Wisdom -- A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

I haven’t done a lot of square dancing in my life, but I’ve done enough to know the basics.  One thing I know for sure is that the Caller plays an important role in the success of the dance.  The Caller guides the dancers in their movement and their steps, and if you don’t follow the Caller’s voice, you’re liable to cause a bit of chaos.  But, if you heed the Caller’s voice, you’ll be successful in your dance.

It’s Trinity Sunday and we hear the voice of Wisdom calling out to us, inviting us to join with God in a holy dance of joy!  If you go out into the narthex and look at our Core Values statement, you’ll find one that calls for us to be spiritually joyful. That is, our life with God should be filled with joy.  

As that great hymn of the faith that opens our hymnal declares:

Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of Glory, Lord of love,
Hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above.
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive our fear and doubt away; 
Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.  (Henry Van Dyke).

I was reminded this week by Luke Timothy Johnson that we moderns have been formed by an Enlightenment vision that is very empirical.  We’ve been trained to think of faith in very cognitive or intellectually focused ways.  We’ve also been trained to see our faith being very rule-oriented.  Being a Christian means behaving properly!  

In this way of looking at things God is the creator and the law giver, which means that God is finished with us, at least until judgment day!  So, just obey the rules and you’ll be okay! 

But is this the gospel of Jesus?  Is this the good news that will lead us to being spiritually joyful people?  Now, a rule-based religion is simple and efficient, but does it allow us to experience the presence of God in our world today?   

As you think about these questions, let me suggest that we might find some helpful answers in the Christian belief in the Triune God.  Now, I know that some of you don’t consider yourselves Trinitarians.  You might even think that it’s odd that a Disciple congregation would celebrate Trinity Sunday.  I understand your dilemma, but I’m going to ask that you indulge me for a few moments.  

Although the Disciples don’t have an official position on the Trinity, I find the Trinity to be a very helpful doctrine.  One reason why I embrace a Trinitarian vision of God is that I was raised with it.  I grew up as an Episcopalian, reciting the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.  Our hymnal calls these Affirmations of Faith rather than creeds.  Whether you call them affirmations or creeds, they invite us to confess faith in the one God, who is revealed in Jesus the son, who is of one substance with the Father, and in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets.” Like I said, It’s just the way I was raised, and I can’t get it out of my head!

But that’s not the only reason why I embrace the Trinity.  I’ve come to believe that the Trinity helps us envision God in relational terms.  God isn’t a solitary entity, but is instead a God who exists relationally as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  

Can you envision these three persons of the Trinity entering into a dance, and then inviting us to join in, with Wisdom serving as the Caller?  As Bruce Epperly puts it the “Trinitarian God is constantly dancing, growing, choosing, and changing.”  He goes on to say that “the Trinitarian God suggested by today’s [lectionary] passages embodies loving fidelity through intimate and changing relationships with the unfolding world and its inhabitants.”

  Although our reading from Proverbs 8 doesn’t speak of Wisdom in divine terms, there’s something about this description of Wisdom that can help us re-envision the nature of God.  

In verses 22-31 Wisdom is portrayed as the first act of God’s creation.  Before God did anything else, God created holy wisdom, who is envisioned in feminine terms.  She is the one who works alongside God creating the world in all its diversity.  That is, she serves beside God as the master builder.  This is a beautiful word, but that’s not the end of the story.   

Too often we think of God as being out there – what theologians call the “wholly other.”  This God creates and gives laws, but is otherwise disengaged from our lives.  This is the Deist vision of God, which ultimately leads to practical atheism.  God may exist, but God isn’t involved in our lives, so we make the best of what we have.  But, such a religion has a purpose – it helps support morality.

But surely the Christian faith is more than the kind of rule keeping that leads preachers to use words like “should” and “must” and “ought.”  Although this kind of religion is simple and straightforward, there’s very little grace to be found in it.  Besides that, it leaves little room for the Spirit to move. 

In contrast to this form of religion, Jesus came into the world offering us the Gospel.  He offers grace, and invites us to root our doing in our relationship with the Living God, who comes to us in Jesus, and indwells us through the Holy Spirit.  There is a place for doing good, but it’s not the prerequisite of faith, it’s the result of our lives being transformed by our dance with the living God who comes to us as Trinity. 

The Proverb closes with these words:  
And I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. (Prov. 8:30a-31 NRSV).
You get the sense here that God delights in creation, including the human race.  We’re not an afterthought.  We’re not a mistake.  We’re not a special project.  No, we’re God’s delight!   

This is a great word, but I’d like you to hear it in a different key, one that I think brings out even more this sense of joy.  Hear this word from the Common English Bible:  
I was having fun, smiling before him all the time,
frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.
“I was just having fun, smiling before him all the time . . .”  Does that sound like church?  Does that sound like something you would do with a God who is a rule giver and a score keeper?  Indeed, does this sound like what worship is supposed to be like?  

Last Sunday we were treated to a song by our children.  And as the children and their leaders sang the song “This Little Light of Mine,” one of our  children broke loose and began to dance before the Lord.  What joy there was in watching Sylvia dance.  I believe that God took delight in that scene.  Yes, I believe the Spirit was present in that moment. 

And so here we are, standing before God.  As we gather in the presence of God, can you hear the voice of Holy Wisdom calling out to you:  “Shall we dance?”  If you can hear the invitation, are you ready to break loose and enter into a dance that’s already taking place within God’s divine nature?  Are you ready to share in the relationship that God experiences within God’s self?  And are you ready to share with God in having fun, smiling, frolicking, and delighting with God in God’s creation, which includes humanity?   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
May 26, 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thoughts on the Trinity -- for Trinity Sunday

            The Christian understanding of God has traditionally been defined in Trinitarian terms.  The Trinity is the way in which we name God.  We maybe monotheistic, but Judaism and Islam have a much more consistent and narrow understanding of monotheism.  In fact, Islam could be seen as a Unitarian offshoot of Christianity.  Consider the assertion of Robert Wright that more marginalized Christian sects, such as the Ebonite’s, could have been a source of Islam’s birth.  That is, Muhammad, in developing a form of monotheism for Arabia, may have looked to non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity, as well as Judaism for insights, and then adapted them to his own needs.  Thus, for Muhammad, Jesus is a prophet, Messiah, and even one born of a virgin, but not “son of God” – at least not in the way traditional Christians have understood that idea.[1]

             As the late Disciples historian Ronald Osborn notes, Disciples have been ambivalent about the doctrine of the Trinity from the beginning.  He writes:
The Disciples regarded themselves as neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian.  Alexander Campbell would not use the term Trinitarian because it did not appear in scripture.  He even changed one line in the great Trinitarian hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” so that instead of saying “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” people would sing, “God over all, and blest eternally.[2]
That being said, Christians are by and large Trinitarian, though not all approach the Trinity in the same way.  The subject is usually approached from one of two ways – either God’s involvement in the history of salvation (economic Trinity) or the nature of God’s being (immanent or ontological).   

            Of course, before one addresses either question, we must address the question of whether the doctrine of the Trinity is even biblical.  Arius, the great opponent of Trinitarianism insisted that it wasn’t, pointing to the lack of biblical support for the idea.  But, in making this claim he also questioned the idea of Christ's full divinity.  Others, have been a little more subtle in their questions than Arius, but they also have found the doctrine difficult to accept.

            Alexander Campbell objected to what he called the "Calvinistic doctrine of the Trinity" because it "confounds things human and divine, and gives new ideas to bible terms unthought of by the inspired writers."  One of the ideas that Campbell found especially vexing was the pre-existence of the Son of God, an idea required by most Trinitarian theologies.  Campbell insisted, however, that "there was no Jesus . . . no Son of God, no Only Begotten, before the reign of Augustus Cesar.  The relation that was before the Christian era was not that of a son and a father, terms which always imply disparity."  Instead, Campbell thought of the relationship as simply between God and the Word of God.  As Word of God, Campbell could affirm pre-existence, but not as son.[3]  Campbell also had great difficulty with Trinitarian vocabulary, much of which he thought was unbiblical.  Yet in the end he affirms the idea of the Trinity, even if he had difficulties with it:
Paul and Peter indeed speak of the divine nature in the abstract, or of the divinity or godhead.  These are the most abstract terms found in the Bible.  Eternity and divinity are, however, equally abstract and almost equally rare in Holy Writ.  Still they are necessarily found in the divine volume; because we must abstract nature from person before we can understand the remedial system.  For the divine nature may be communicated or imparted in some sense; and, indeed, while it is essentially and necessarily singular, it is certainly plural in its personal manifestations.  Hence we have the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit equally divine, though personally distinct from each other.  We have in fact, but one God, on Lord, one Holy Spirit; yet these are equally possessed of one and the same divine nature.[4]   
            All of this suggests that the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t an easily understood or explained concept.   

            We need to state up front that much of the vocabulary that undergirds Trinitarian doctrine is not found in the Bible, and that includes the word Trinity itself.  Few verses actually speak in Trinitarian formulas, in fact, only two passages actually provide us with a Trinitarian formula:  Matt. 28:19 and 2 Corinthians 13:13.  However, there are many verses that would suggest the need for the doctrine of the Trinity to make sense of the biblical understanding of God.  We will look at some of this today.  Brevard Childs puts the issue in this way:
It is a formulation of the church in its attempt to reflect faithfully on the biblical witness.  But it was precisely by observing the unity and differentiation of God within the biblical revelation that the church was confronted with the Trinity.  The divine subject, predicate and object, are not only to be equated, but also differentiated.  Indeed it is the doctrine of the Trinity which makes the doctrine of God actually Christian.[5]
            Ultimately, the need for a doctrine of the Trinity arose from the need to make sense of the church's affirmation of the divine sonship of Jesus Christ.  As Brevard Child's points out the doctrine emerged from the need to "do justice to the Christ who was from the church's inception confessed as Lord."  Child's also notes that when nineteenth century Christians lost interest in the doctrine of the Trinity their Christologies also began to blur and become distorted. [6]

            If Osborn speaks out of the traditional Disciple reticence to define a Trinitarian viewpoint, a more recent Disciple theological discussion of the concept, suggests that Disciples need to develop a “robust Trinitarian theology.”  Peter Goodwin Heltzel suggests that such an engagement is required of us because of our engagement in the ecumenical movement, but also because it allows us to recognize our relationality in diversity.[7]   

Although I recognize the ambivalence that is within my own religious tradition, I believe that Heltzel is correct that it would serve the Disciples well to engage more fully in developing a robust Trinitarian theology, one that affirms diversity and relationality.

[1]Wright, The Evolution of God, pp. 361-363.
[2]Ronald Osborn, The Faith We Affirm: Basic Beliefs of Disciples of Christ, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1979), p. 52.
[3]Alexander Campbell, A Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, Royal Humbert, ed., (St. Louis:  Bethany, 1961), pp. 94-98.
[4]Alexander Campbell, The Christian System, (Cincinnati:  H.S. Bosworth, 1866; reprint, Salem, NH:  Ayer Company, 1988), p. 20.
[5]Brevard Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments:  Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible,  (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1992), 375.
[6]Childs, Biblical Theology, p. 376.
[7]Peter Goodwin Heltzel, “Singing the Trinity,” in Chalice Introduction to Disciples Theology, (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2008), pp. 92ff. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Concerning Homosexuality -- How Does the Church Discern a Proper Response?

If you read this blog with any regularity you know that I support the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church, including gay marriage.  I also have a high view of biblical authority, believing that God does speak through these words.  For many these two affirmations seem contradictory.  After all, the Bible seems to offer a straightforward no to same-gender sexual relationships.  From Leviticus's declaration that such unions are an abomination to Paul's words about women and men exchanging natural intercourse (heterosexual) for unnatural (seemingly homosexual).  But is there more to this story?

I have come to believe that despite this no to same gender relationships, the story is much more complex.  Having recently preached on the Cornelius moment (Acts 11), I do believe that there is another way.  I believe that God continues to speak, and in doing so, may modify our understandings of what is appropriate. I believe that personal experience can be revelatory, but what are the limits?  To me, it is important that we keep a conversation going between scripture and our experience (along with the traditions of the church).  

I'm raising the question this way because I had the opportunity to hear biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson address the question of discernment at the Rochester College Streaming conference.  The question that Johnson raised concerned what it meant to be faithful to the biblical story.  He pointed us to the process we see present in Acts 10-15 (explored in his book Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church, which I must read), where we see the early church accept the inclusion of Gentiles without them becoming Jews first.  In this case the church -- ultimately at the Council in chapter 15 -- discerns that God is working in a new way.  Here then is a model for the church.

In closing conversation, Johnson spoke specifically of this process.  In conversation afterward he spoke of articles in Commonweal that speak of this process.  In the article I called up, Johnson notes that in affirming same-gender relationships we reject the authority of scripture in this case, and if we do so faithfully, turning to experience, then:

 Implicit in an appeal to experience is also an appeal to the living God whose creative work never ceases, who continues to shape humans in his image every day, in ways that can surprise and even shock us. Equally important, such an appeal goes to the deepest truth revealed by Scripture itself—namely, that God does create the world anew at every moment, does call into being that which is not, and does raise the dead to new and greater forms of life.

 To quote the slogan of my UCC friends, "God is still speaking."  But, how do we know it is God?  That's the big issue that requires discernment.  And what will help us in this discernment?  Johnson suggests that we'll find the answer not in the laws, but in the narratives of Scripture.

I suggest, therefore, that the New Testament provides impressive support for our reliance on the experience of God in human lives—not in its commands, but in its narratives and in the very process by which it came into existence. In what way are we to take seriously the authority of Scripture? What I find most important of all is not the authority found in specific commands, which are fallible, conflicting, and often culturally conditioned, but rather the way Scripture creates the mind of Christ in its readers, authorizing them to reinterpret written texts in light of God’s Holy Spirit active in human lives. When read within the perspective of a Scripture that speaks everywhere of a God disclosing Godself through human experience, our stories become the medium of God’s very revelation.

So, are you willing to take this difficult road and seek the wisdom and purpose of God?   

Thursday, May 23, 2013

God Knows the Truth -- Beyond the Lectionary (David Ackerman)

Many of us who preach regularly turn to the lectionary, which offers a three year cycle of biblical texts. It's a helpful way to move through the biblical story, but the compilers of the lectionary leave out portions of that story. David Ackerman, a United Church of Christ pastor, has created a secondary lectionary -- what he calls "Beyond the Lectionary." David approached me about sharing the message with my readers, and so with this posting I begin sharing this word. My plan is to post these beyond the lectionary materials on the Thursday prior. I would also invite you to get a copy of David's forthcoming book, which I plan to review in the near future. Here is a description of the book:

Beyond the Lectionary gives preachers a new year of Biblical texts that are not found on Sundays (or other mainline Protestant holy days) in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. It provides readings from the Hebrew Bible, Psalms, Epistles/New Testament and Gospels for each Sunday of the liturgical year, along with several midweek observances. The texts have been selected with an eye toward continuity (progressing in order) and complementarity (textual completion or harmony), and they are accompanied by commentaries and prayers. Written in language that is accessible to both lay people and professionals, Beyond the Lectionary has the potential to transform congregational culture by bringing more of the content of scripture to people's awareness.

 As one who seeks to preach out of the biblical story, I welcome this new resource.  For more information see David's site -- Beyond the Lectionary.


Proper 4

June 2, 2013
“God Knows the Truth”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 11 NRSV
One:  In the Lord I take refuge.
Many:  How can you say to me, “Flee like a bird to the mountains; for look, the wicked bend the bow, they have fitted their arrow to the string, to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.  If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
One:  The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven.  His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind.
Many:  The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.
One:  On the wicked he will rain coals of fire and sulfur; a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.
Many:  For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.
Gathering Prayer:  God, we gather together today knowing that we have many things to learn about you.  When we think that we understand you, remind us that we have only begun to discern the length, breadth and depth of your grace.  Amen.
Confession:  God, so often we think that we know the truth about things when we haven’t even begun to understand what is real in your sight.  We have misused scripture to justify hatred and bigotry toward groups of people.  Forgive us our arrogance and ignorance, and grant us humility to be aware of our limitations.  Help us to teach what is true and reject falsehood when we discern it.  Amen.
Assurance:  Hear now this good news: God knows us better than we know ourselves.  God has already heard our prayer and let go of all our sins.  We are now set free to open ourselves to the living God and embrace the truth that God reveals to us.  Amen.
Scriptures:  Genesis 19:1-8, 15-26, 30-38 – “Sodom and Gomorrah”
2 Peter 2:4-10a – “False Teachers Are Like Sodom”
Matthew 11:20-24 – “Comparison to Sodom”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
In what ways do you see connections between the first reading about Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19 and the other readings for the day?
The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is one of the most misunderstood stories in scripture.  Popular culture has often considered the sin of Sodom to be homosexuality, but this, of course, is far from the truth.  What do you think is really going on here?  How is the violent intent of the men of Sodom a sign of extreme inhospitality against outsiders?
Today’s reading in Genesis 19 also includes the story about Lot in vv 30-38.  What impression do you get of Lot in this passage (or, for that matter, in v 8)?  How is this different from the impression the author of 1 Peter has of him?  Do the authors have different agendas when talking about Lot?  If so, what are they?
What can we do to work to bring an end to sexual violence, rape, and homophobia in the world?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  God, thank you for giving us insight to discern your truth in the world.  May we respond to this gift by working together to build a world of justice and peace!  Amen.
Benediction:  Let us now go out and work for a world where justice and peace are at home and violence and hatred are overcome by love.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dancing with God on Trinity Sunday -- A Lectionary Reflection

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Romans 5:1-5

John 16:12-15

Dancing with God on Trinity Sunday

            Why bother with the Trinity?  It’s a distraction from interfaith conversations with Jewish and Muslim friends, who find it difficult to reconcile the Christian claim to be monotheists with our affirmation of this idea of threeness in God’s nature.  Besides, Christians have been struggling with this doctrinal statement since at least the third century if not before.   We’ve come up with all manner of definitions that veer from tritheism (three gods) to Unitarianism.  In the fourth century, feeling pressure from the Roman government, leaders of the church decided on a formula (Nicene Creed) that drew from Greek philosophical categories that we no longer make use of.  We nod in agreement even if we don’t accept the philosophical foundations as useful.  So why not just abandon this idea of the Trinity and affirm a more radical monotheism? 

            As a pastor in a denomination that doesn’t put the Trinity front and center in its belief systems (because we’re non-creedal, that system is fairly open), and being pastor of a congregation that contains a number of members who would claim to be Unitarian or feel that the doctrine is irrelevant, I could skip Trinity Sunday and no one would complain.  And yet, I continue to embrace this doctrine, believing that it helps me understand and experience God’s presence and activity in a much fuller way than I could with a strict monotheism.  So, on Sunday, I will try to lead my congregation in celebrating the Triune nature of God. 

            For the Trinity to truly have value for my faith experience, it will have to be more than a philosophical construct.  There has to be a living engagement with the triune God.  Although there is the problem of gender particularity in the traditional formula of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I haven’t found an alternative that brings personal engagement.  Other formulas focus on roles, not personality.  Whatever formula we choose to embrace, the point is – God is not simple.  God is complex and ultimately ineffable.  Perhaps it’s appropriate that we find it difficult to adequately define God as Trinity, but if Christ is the center of our faith, then we must delve into this belief to make sense of our relationship with God through Christ. 

            The title of this post borrows from the reflections offered by my friend Bruce Epperly, who writes that “the Trinitarian God is constantly dancing, growing, choosing, and changing.”  We see this vision of the divine present in Proverbs 8, which offers a definition of Holy Wisdom (Heb. Hokmah).  Holy Wisdom is often seen in feminine form, reminding us that in the divine nature there is the feminine as well as the masculine.  While Proverbs 8 suggests that Wisdom is the first act of creation, and then is the partner with God in creating the world – serving with God as “master worker,” or perhaps better the “master builder.”  God sets out the plans and Wisdom brings the plan to fruition. 

The first four verses invite us to hear the call of Wisdom, who stands at the city gates and cries out to us, asking for our attention.  In the intervening verses, we hear a portion of this message and a reminder that Wisdom “dwell[s] with prudence; I have found knowledge and discretion” (vs. 12).  There is a reminder that there is a practical dimension to Wisdom, and thus to the nature of God.  In the verses that run from 22 -31, we hear the message of Wisdom’s role in Creation.  The first Creation, then serving with God, as the Master Builder, all that is created is created – and Wisdom was there with God. 

The reading closes with the verses that inspire the idea that God is a Dancing Trinity.  The Common English Bible brings out this sense more clearly than the NRSV.
I was having fun, smiling before him all the time,Frolicking with his inhabited earth and delighting in the human race.    (vs. 30b-31). 
I take this reference to be a key to the intimate and dynamic nature of God.  God the Trinity is not Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.”  God isn’t the disinterested Creator of Deism.  God is the Dancing Trinity, who in the form of Wisdom, likes to have fun, who smiles, and frolics with the inhabitants of earth.   Can you get your head around this image of the God who loves to play?

            The readings from John and Romans are more formal, but they too help us recognize that there is more to God than a singular view might suggest.  In the reading from Romans 5, the focus is on peace and hope, both of which come to us through Christ.  We have peace with God through Christ.  It is a peace that is received by faith and brings to us righteousness because of his faithfulness.  God is the actor, and Jesus is the mediator of that action.  Yes, there are problems, challenges, even suffering, but as we persevere or endure, character is produced, and it is this character that leads to hope.  Hope isn’t mere whimsy – it’s deeply rooted trust that God is faithful.  This hope is related to the love of God poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (vs. 5).  There is a trinity of attributes – faith, hope, love.  We could add into the mix peace, but perhaps peace is the result of these three.  There is in this accounting an incipient Trinitarian formula.  It’s not developed or explicitly stated, but if you’re looking for it, you’ll find it.  Peace comes from God through Christ, and the love of God is poured out through the Holy Spirit.  And, keeping all of this in mind, we can hear another promise.  As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson point out, as reflect on verse five we should bear in mind that “the gift of the Spirit for Paul demonstrates that the community already lives in the age to come”  (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 38).  God already reigns, we just need to recognize that reign.  And if as is hinted here, God is triune, then there is depth to this relationship that we can delve into.

            When it comes to the word from the Gospel of John, we hear Jesus tell the disciples that there is more to be shared, but they’re not yet ready to hear it or understand it.  It takes time and experience to begin to understand this God who comes to us as Trinity, as divine complexity.  As I read this passage I thought of Robert Wright’s book The Evolution of God.  The book itself seeks to demonstrate that over time humans have developed a fuller and more coherent understanding of God, moving from early animism, through polytheism, henotheism, and on to monotheism.  If you take his trajectory seriously, Islam becomes the culmination in this evolutionary process, which means that Trinitarian thinking is something of an aberration. While we needn’t accept Wright’s theories, it is helpful to realize that our own understandings of God do evolve.  Because we can’t handle the entire truth all at once, we build, layer by layer understandings of God.  Some aspects or beliefs will be jettisoned, because they prove to be dead-ends, but the point is that we are seeking to better understand that which we have come to believe. 

In John 16, Jesus says to the disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now.”  At that point in the story, of course, Jesus is pointing toward the cross and the resurrection.  He is telling them that even if they don’t understand now, they will in time.  But, remembering that this is a Trinitarian vision, we hear a promise, the Spirit of Truth is coming, and the Spirit of Truth will guide us to the truth.  And what does the Spirit of Truth reveal?  The Spirit shares with the Spirit hears, and what the Spirit hears will glorify Christ, for the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and proclaims it to us.  The Trinitarian element is especially present in verse 15, where Jesus says that “everything that the Father has is Mine,” continuing the message that the Father and Son are one.  Then Jesus declares that the Spirit takes what is Christ’s and proclaims it to us.  And here is the promise – the Spirit makes that which is Christ’s available to us.  So that we don’t fall victim to a theology of glory that leads to triumphalism, we must understand that with any glory comes the suffering of the cross.  That is the way of God who comes to us as Trinity. 

            Returning to that vision expressed in Proverbs 8, are we ready to experience the delight of God.  Are we ready to embrace a Wisdom that seeks to have fun, who smiles before God, who frolics with the inhabited earth and who delights in the human race?   In other words, are we ready to dance before God, as one of our small children did this past Sunday as the children and their leaders sang “This Little Light of Mine?”  Is their joy in our embrace of this God who comes to us inviting us to join in the dance?