Friday, August 30, 2013


Oxford Cathedral

As I prepare for my Sabbatical to begin -- I can begin to count in hours rather than days or weeks -- I do so with great expectancy.  I am by nature a planner -- especially when traveling.  I want to know where I am going and what I'm going to do.  It is a matter of preparation, I suppose.  And I think everything is in place for the sabbatical -- at least all the plane reservations have been made, housing arrangements made.  I am, you might say, excited about what is going to transpire over the next three months.  

I go forth on this adventure, expecting that it will be transformative.  It will be a time of rest (no meetings -- though I've already broken that rule and planned for a meeting of an organization for which I am president).  My trip to England will fulfill a long held dream.  I am by training a British historian, but have never been there.  I am looking forward to walking across Oxford, exploring London, visiting Bath, Stonehenge, and Salisbury.  I'm looking forward o spending time in the Bodleian Library, delving into the writings of Thomas Brett -- that Nonjuroring Bishop whom I have studied from afar.  But I also expect to meet God along the way.  Perhaps it will be in worship at Oxford's Cathedral (interior pictured).

If I am to experience this time of renewal and transformation it will come in the midst of my encounters for the Living God, whose steadfast love "is better than life."  It is in those thin places, where heaven and earth come into contact that we fully realize this reality.  I am expecting to experience these thin places, even if I don't yet know where this will occur.  In any case, my longing is moving through the stages of preparation so that I can find refreshment for my spirit by encountering the Spirit of God.  

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
    beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
 my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.  

[Psalm 63:1-4 NRSV]

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Lead Humbly -- An Alternative Lection for Proper 18 (David Ackerman)

The idea of a humble leader seems like an oxymoron.  We hear a lot about servant leadership, and pastors are urged to take up that calling, looking to Jesus as our model, but really it's not all that easy to accomplish this.  When people are looking to you for guidance it can easily lead to hubris.  And yet, this is a calling to which we've been called -- and only by grace are we able to accomplish such a calling.  The call to lead humbly is the theme of David Ackerman's alternative lectionary for September 8th (Proper 18).  If you're a preacher or reader of scripture, perhaps this would be a worthy alternative to the regular lectionary readings.


Proper 18

September 8, 2013
“Lead Humbly”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:65-72 NRSV
One:  You have dealt well with your servant, O Lord, according to your word.
Many:  Teach me good judgment and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.
One:  Before I was humbled, I went astray, but now I keep your word.
Many:  You are good and do good; teach me your statutes.
One:  The arrogant smear me with lies, but with my whole heart I keep your precepts.
Many:  Their hearts are fat and gross, but I delight in your law.
One:  It is good for me that I was humbled, so that I might learn your statutes.
Many:  The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.
Gathering Prayer:  Life has a way of humbling us, God, and we know all too well that we are only human.  Help us not to forget our shared human situation, as we come together before you this day.  Amen.
Confession:  We have been arrogant, God, and have insisted on our own ways.  We have not taken into account the thoughts and feelings of others, nor have we taken you into our hearts as we should.  We know that we need to change, God, so forgive us and lead us.  Teach us to follow you, so that might lose ourselves in service to you.  Amen.
Assurance:  God knows that we are fragile humans who err and stray far more than we should.  Yet the Holy One welcomes us back into the heavenly family time and time again.  Let us be thankful for the assurance that we have that God gives us grace that is above and beyond anything that we might ever expect.  Amen.
Scriptures:  Jeremiah 28:1-4, 10-17 – “Hananiah’s Demise”
Romans 14:13-23 – “No Stumbling Block”
John 7:45-52 – “No Prophet from Galilee”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
What’s the proof that a prophet is telling the truth?
In Jeremiah 28, do you think Jeremiah is treasonous?  What would you have thought if you lived in Israel during this time?
The author of Psalm 119 writes, “It is good for me that I was humbled” (v 71).  Have you ever had an experience where you could say something like that?
Have you ever felt like someone put a stumbling block in the way of your faith because of something they said or did?  Have you ever put a stumbling block in front of others?  Do you think Romans 14 calls us to “walk on eggshells”, lest we offend someone because of what we eat or drink?  Can we be genuine and real with others while being sensitive to their needs?  If these principles come into conflict with each other, which one should win?
Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, defends Jesus in John 7.  What do you make of the comment, “Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee” (v 52)?
How can we lead humbly, without being arrogant on the one hand or timid on the other?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  In your infinite grace, God, you have given us marvelous opportunities to lead with humility and love.  Thank you for entrusting us with this gift.  Lead us, so that we might be faithful stewards of this trust.  Amen.
Benediction:  Let us go now and lead others in a spirit of humble grace as we work together to help usher in the realm of God in this world.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Dream Deferred? Remembering Dr. King's Call to Action

            Fifty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. mounted the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a powerful, visionary, speech.  It wasn’t the only speech delivered the day of the March on Washington, but it is the one we remember.  It was a moment in time that helped propel the next phase of the Civil Rights Movement.  The March itself was meant to be a catalyst that would lead to furthering justice for the African American Community.  It was meant to send a signal to Congress and to the White House that the time for action had come.  Today, many are stirred by the vision of a world in which color of skin doesn’t determine one’s place in society, but the content of one’s character.  As powerful as this dream was, and even though it helped lead Congress to pass important Civil Rights legislation, have   we really reached the point where we can say that the dream is fulfilled? 

            You might answer:  “well America elected an African-American as President, doesn’t that mean we’ve moved beyond race?  I know that many in the Euro-American community (that is those who are white) would like to believe that we have moved into a post-racial society the evidence seems to suggest otherwise.  The attempts in certain states to disenfranchise voters and the fact that jails and prisons are disproportionately filled with persons of color should at least raise a few red flags.  The unemployment rate and high school dropout rate among persons of color is much higher than among whites.   Why is this so?  What barriers still exist?  What attitudes mark our conversations? 

            Fifty years ago, in August 1963, I was but five years old.  I didn’t hear the speech.  I didn’t know anything about Martin Luther King.  It probably wasn’t until well after Dr. King was assassinated (when I was ten) that I even learned of him.  But, I have been paying attention since then.

            I wish we could say that fifty years later the dream had come to fruition.  That it hasn’t doesn’t mean that we should give up the pursuit of the dream.   I wish full equality had been achieved.  I wish that the churches didn’t continue to be segregated.  I wish I could say that there wasn’t within me signs of racism.  Is it overt?  No.  Is it there?  I am certain it is.   In what way does it exhibit itself?  I would venture to say that it comes in the form of paternalism.  It expresses itself in my tendency to believe that I am essential to the cause of freedom.  That is not to say that I should abdicate my responsibilities, but it does mean entering into the conversation with all due humility.  It means recognizing that I really don’t know what it’s like to live as a minority – to experience racial profiling or to be denied the right to vote or live as I please.   

            On this day we need to celebrate the vision that Dr. King laid out for us.  We need to embrace it, but before we embrace the soaring refrain of freedom, we must remember that on that the speech was only a first step toward equality.  Dr. King offered a dream, but he also issued a warning:

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

I suspect that we live some place in between this warning and the refrain of justice.  Yes, if we are to reach the summit we must recognize that we've not yet reached that moment.  But, on this day, it is appropriate that we join with Dr King and consider that vision:  

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"


            If we’re willing to acknowledge how much further we have to go to reach the dream, then we can fully appreciate this message that resonates as much today as it did a half century ago.  

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Last Shall Be First -- Lectionary Meditation for Pentecost 15C

Proverbs 25:6-7

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Last Shall Be First

            Anyone who wants to be President of the United States needs to have a certain amount of hubris to seek the job.   You have to believe that among the millions of Americans you are best qualified to lead what, at least at this point, is the most powerful nation in the world.  It’s not a job that I would seek, but isn’t hubris part of the human drive to succeed?  As a preacher, doesn’t it take a degree of hubris to stand before a congregation and proclaim a word that is deemed a word from God?  Now, being that I am a preacher and believe that God can speak through my words – why else get up there on Sunday morning – I do believe that it is the Spirit and not my genius that ultimately brings the Word of God to the listener.  But, if I’m honest, I do take pride in what I do.

            We talk a lot in Christian circles about servant leadership.  We look to Jesus and see in him a certain degree of humility that we deem worth imitating in our own lives.  But despite the typical picture of Jesus as being meek and mild, if you read the Gospels carefully, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t afraid of mixing it up.  He claimed a personal authority that included forgiving sins and reinterpreting the Law.  That takes a bit of audacity.  Now, we could chalk it up to Jesus understanding a divine status that allowed him to do this.  But, if we’re to look to him as our model, do we have license to act with a degree of authority? 

            Growing up I suffered from poor self-esteem, which have led in two different directions.  At times I’ve shrunk back to the rear of the group.  Other times I’ve tried to push myself forward.  There’s value in this – of knowing when and where one should assert one’s self.  Discerning that time and place does, however, often come with at least a few embarrassing moments.  You may assert yourself authoritatively and be knocked down just a few rungs.  I’m still learning how this works at fifty-five! 

            The readings for the week speak of knowing one’s place – of being a person of humility and grace.  These are good words for consulting as we deal with the temptation to hubris. 

            The reading from Proverbs 25 is brief and to the point.  The author of this bit of wisdom counsels deference.  “Don’t exalt yourself in the presence of the king, or stand in the place of important people.”  In a hierarchical society where the king was often considered nearly divine in nature, this is definitely a word of wisdom.  But even in our society, most of us know better than to simply walk up to the President of the United States and start a conversation.  If the President invites you – well that’s a different story, but don’t think you can just jump to the front of the line.   Better to be invited to the head table than to be sent away.  Yes, we must know our place!!  

This sentiment is taken up by Jesus in his parable found in Luke 12.  Jesus had gone to the house of a Pharisee, and he began to watch the behavior of the guests.  He noticed how the guests were jockeying for the best seat in the house.  Your social status was marked by where you sat.  Seeing this Jesus offers a word of wisdom. 

When you go to a wedding, don’t try to sit in the seat of honor.  That is, don’t go down and sit at the head table.  There might be a more important guest coming, and you might suffer the indignity of being asked to give up your seat for this other guest.  As a result you end up sitting at the back of the room, behind the pole, in the last place.  Wouldn’t it be better to sit at the back, and then be invited by the host to move forward to a seat of honor?  The last shall be first, and the first last.  Don’t think of yourself too highly.  This is a key point that appears throughout Scripture – God will bring down the proud and lift up those on the margins.  It is a message that Mary sang of and which Jesus lived out on the cross.  As we read this text, we should do so in light of the cross, for Jesus humbled himself and died on a cross.  He suffered humiliation, but God lifted him up in the resurrection.  Now, we needn’t take this to extremes.  We needn’t brutalize our bodies in order to please God, but in this story Jesus makes it clear that God does stand with those on the margins.

But Jesus isn’t finished.  He also talks about the meaning and purpose of hospitality.  Then as now there is this sense of reciprocity.  I invite you and you invite me.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with reciprocating, but Jesus wants to push us beyond our own self-interest.  He wants us to think about why we invite someone to dinner.  Is it because we expect something out of it?  Instead of treating hospitality in this manner, Jesus encourages us to invite those who cannot reciprocate.  Invite to your banquet “the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.  Instead, you will be repaid in the resurrection” (vs. 13-14 CEB).   This is a difficult word to hear because we seldom live in accordance with this directive.   We don’t do this in our personal lives.  We don’t do this in our congregations.  And it’s clear from the political sentiment of the age, that we don’t want to do this in public life.   The current mood, even among church people, is “I’ve got mine.  You’re on your own.”  We don’t want to pay taxes to support education, public transportation, health care, and more.  What would Jesus do?

We conclude this conversation by turning to the word found in Hebrews 13.  The author – we don’t know who the author is or even who the audience is – calls on us to “keep loving each other like family.”  We are the family of God – but unlike some families, especially modern families, this isn’t narrowly defined.  The family is expansive and inclusive – but also concerned about the welfare of everyone in the family.  So, show hospitality to guests?  Why?  Well, you never know who is knocking at the door.  In a word that is reminiscent of stories told throughout ancient cultures – you could be hosting angels and not be aware of it?  Think back to the stories of the three strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah and then Lot.  How you treat the stranger determines your fate – as the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah discovered.

The word to the Hebrews calls on us to remember the prisoners and those are mistreated – as if it were us experiencing this time of distress.  Hold marriage in honor.  We’re debating marriage equality – but as we do so we should also be having a conversation about it means to live in covenant relationship.  Flee from the love of money – which we know can consume us.  Gordon Gecko preached the gospel that “greed is good.”  It is a gospel embraced by many.  It isn’t however the gospel of Jesus.  Be content, because God will not abandon you.  Therefore, we can say with confidence – “The Lord is my helper and I won’t be afraid.”   We can hold on to this promise because Jesus is the “same yesterday, today, and forever!”   Therefore, with this confession on our lips we can boldly offer up our sacrifice of praise, confess the name of Jesus, and then do good and share what we have because this pleases God.  It is important to remember that God isn’t impressed with rituals without hearts open to God and neighbor. 

Yes, let us know our place as servants of the living God.      

Monday, August 26, 2013

Going on Pilgrimage

In just two weeks I will be heading off to England, one of the highlights of my three-month sabbatical.  I go as a visiting scholar at Oxford Brookes University, and will be spending time at the Bodleiean Library at Oxford University.  But while in England -- my first trip to England -- I will be doing some sight-seeing.  The question is -- do I go as a tourist or do I go as a pilgrim?  It would be easy to do the former, but the purpose of going on pilgrimage is to experience spiritual transformation.

My friend and a spiritual mentor, the Rev. Susan Copeland, is one who understands the difference.  She has made a number of pilgrimages and has written a book entitled Finding The Waymarkers: A Pilgrim's Journal for Modern Times.  I have been saving the book for just this moment -- the beginning of my sabbatical season.  Susan points to the story of Jacob and his trek to Haran -- both to flee his brother and to find a wife within the family.  Along the way, Jacob has a dream and discovered that God was in that place where he lay.  As a result of this, Jacob set up a marker as a reminder of the sacredness of that site (Genesis 28).  Pilgrimages often center on places of sacred importance.

Susan writes:

Pilgrimage, as a sacred practice, is being rediscovered by millions in our modern times.  Learning from the ancients and adapting to conditions in our times.  Learning from the ancients and adapting to conditions in our lives, Christians are rediscovering the power of intentional journey, of sacred places, of internal reflection, and, in all, of purposefully inviting God into our lives.  We are seeking again the ancient sacred places of pilgrimage that have been recognized since the earliest times as places of healing of body, mind, and spirit.  But we are also adapting the pilgrimage practice to a personal place of memory, our holy ground, to places where we came to know the friendship and love of God.  (p. 2).
Susan mentions a number of other personal sites that serve as sacred spaces for our own journeys, but as I seek to envision my own journey, there are specific sacred sites that I am focusing on.

Susan notes that a pilgrimage involves a series of movements that begin with longing, and moves to preparation, journey, arrival, return, afterlife of the pilgrimage.  At this moment in time, I am moving from the longing stage through the preparation stage, with the journey closing in quickly.

I found a picture on the internet of Salisbury Cathedral.  I've not yet been to this historic cathedral, which served as the episcopal seat of Gilbert Burnet, whose Discourse of the Pastoral Care (1714) I edited and published a number of years ago.  I have chosen this site to be the focal point of my journey to England.  Later, I will travel to other places and there are sacred spaces that will serve as markers on the journey --including St. Luke's of the Mountains Episcopal Church in LaCrescenta, CA, which is where I was baptized in infancy.  There will be other sites as well, and I hope to share my experiences here on the blog and elsewhere.

I invite you to join me on my spiritual pilgrimage, so that I might encourage to embark on their journeys.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Shall Return -- A Sermon Before a Sabbatical

Leviticus 25:1-12

When Douglas MacArthur retreated from the Philippines in the face of the Japanese invasion early in World War II, he boldly declared: “I shall return.”  And he did!  While we’re not facing invasion as a congregation, and though I’m not fleeing for my life, this phrase popped into my mind when I was thinking about what to say in my final sermon before leaving on my sabbatical.  Now, I could have gone with another famous quote; one that was uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie The Terminator:   “I’ll be back!”  Either one works, because even though I’m saying good-bye – I’ll be back before you know it! 

So, by the end of this coming week we will be entering this season of rest and renewal that we call a sabbatical.   Now, I must admit that it’s not going to be  easy for me to do this, because I’m not very good at resting.  John McCauslin is already worried about this!  

Now, I do take a day off most weeks and I take my vacations – as some of you have noticed!  But I often fill this time off with what looks like work – that is, my writing projects.  You see, I need to be doing something!  Perhaps this sounds familiar.  After all, retired people continually complain that they don’t have enough time in a day to get everything done.  I thought retirement meant that you had lots of free time!  Apparently this isn’t true. 

As I go out on my sabbatical I’m going to try to find a balance between resting and activity.  I will be doing a bit of traveling – including my long awaited trip to England in just two weeks.  There are books to read.  Writing to get done.  And, because winter will be on the horizon – I have yard work to do. 

But why do I need to take a sabbatical?  Why do I need this time of rest and renewal?  Well, this is intended to be a time of preparation for the next phase of our ministry together.   One reason why  pastors take sabbaticals is that it helps sustain a long-term pastorate, and that is important because churches tend to do better with long-term pastorates.  

You might be wondering which aspect of my ministry I’m look most forward to resting from!  That would be – meetings!!  Yes, for the next three months, I don’t have any required meetings! 

Since this is my last sermon before I head out on the sabbatical I decided to reflect on the purpose of Sabbaths.  I chose Leviticus 25 because it speaks of the Sabbath year.  And while I’m not taking a year off – I am taking off a prolonged period of time.  

In ancient Israel there were three kinds of Sabbaths, but each of them was rooted in the day of Sabbath, which according to the Ten Commandments we’re to keep holy.   
In Leviticus 23, the Lord gives Moses instructions about Israel’s festivals, the first of which is the Sabbath.  
Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation.  You shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.   
So what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy by not doing any work?  Well, first of all, you can’t cook – but neither can your servants or your neighbors.  You can’t do yard work.  I don’t think you can even play golf!  And, of course, you can’t blog.  So, do any of you ever break this commandment?  

Now Jesus did, on occasion,  break this commandment – but he did it for a reason.  He wanted to remind people that the Sabbath was designed for the good of God’s people, not to make life dull and boring.    
If you want to know the meaning of Sabbath-keeping you might look back at the Puritans. They went to church every Sunday morning and listened to the preacher talk for maybe three hours.  Then, they went home, ate lunch and read their bibles, prayed.  When evening came, they returned to the church and listened to the preacher for another two or three hours.  Doesn’t that sound fun?  

Now, King James I of England, whose name graces a very popular Bible Translation, didn’t seem to enjoy this kind of Sabbath, so he  issued an edict known as the Book of Sports.  The Book of Sports decreed that on Sundays the English people should dance around the Maypole and play games.  Yes, James I probably went golfing on the Sabbath!  He was from Scotland, after all!

While the Puritan form of the Sabbath might not sound all that appealing, there are benefits to the Sabbath.  John Calvin, who influenced these Puritan Sabbath enthusiasts, suggested three specific benefits.

      First, when we lay aside our own work, we leave room for God to work within us.   Friday evening I went down to Serenity Christian Church to hear Dr. Frank Thomas preach.  He preached from Joshua 9:14, which when read from the New International Version states:  “The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.”  How often do we go off and do our own thing in the name of Jesus, and never stop to “inquire of the Lord?”  The Sabbath is intended to provide us with the opportunity to “inquire of the Lord.”  

The second reason to keep the Sabbath is so that we have the opportunity to “hear the Law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works.”  And finally, it provides us with an opportunity to rest from our labors [Institutes 2:8:28].

The reason I chose Leviticus 25 instead of Leviticus 23 is that it mentions the other kinds of Sabbaths – the one that occurs every seven years and the one that occurs on the fiftieth year,  the Year of Jubilee.  This passage focuses on the use of the land, which is supposed to lay fallow every seven years.  No planting; no tending to the land.  The land will do whatever it will do.  Now there is an expectation that the people will prepare for these Sabbatical years.  You don’t just wake up one morning and realize that the  farm is going to shut down for the next year, starting today.

     To get a sense of the meaning of the Sabbath, we might turn to the story of God’s provision of the manna in the Sinai.  As the people traversed across the wilderness, they gathered manna twice a day, taking just enough for that meal.  You couldn’t hoard because the leftovers spoiled before the next morning came.   But on the sixth day of the week, the people were to gather an extra amount to get them through the seventh day, when no manna was available.   In this case, the Lord tells Moses – “Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food.”  In other words, God will provide.  

I believe that there is a word from the Lord here about the Sabbatical season.  We have done our part to prepare – hopefully inquiring of the Lord along the way.  Now, we get to put our trust in God, who promises to provide.  The Lord tells Moses that “it will be a year of special rest for the land.  Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food. . . .”  (Lev. 25:6).  

Over the next three months, while I’m away, the leadership, the members, and the friends of the church will step forward and fill gaps that I might normally fill.  But this isn’t just a time to “step up.’  It’s also a time to put our trust in God’s provision.  I need to hold on to this promise as much as you might – because if I’m going to experience rest and renewal, I can’t be worrying about what’s happening back at the church.    

So, maybe I mistitled the sermon.  Perhaps I should have entitled the sermon –  “I am here.”  Why?  Because wherever we go, we go in the empowering presence of God’s Spirit, who is our comforter, our advocate, and our tutor. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 25, 2013
14th Sunday after Pentecost

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Teaching office of the Bishop in a Free Church setting

           My denominational tradition – the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – doesn’t call its “judicatories” bishops.  We call them General Ministers and Regional Ministers.  We sometimes jokingly call these leaders bishops, but we don’t generally assign them the same kind of authority that a bishop in a Methodist, Episcopal, or Catholic Church would.

            For the most part we assume that these leaders, both in regional and general expressions provide spiritual leadership and administrative leadership, but do we affirm another aspect of leadership that traditionally was assigned to bishops – that is the teaching office.

            Disciples embrace the idea that we all have the freedom to explore the scriptures and interpret them.  We don’t assume that pastors, even highly educated ones, have the right to define the faith for the people.  Preachers can preach and teach, but how much authority is accorded them.

            For the purposes of our ongoing conversations about church polity – and Disciples polity as almost as flat as anything Tony Jones can envision – can we conceive of our regional and general leaders being called to a teaching office?

            Years ago, Michael Kinnamon was nominated as General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He was and is a teacher.  He has held administrative posts (General Secretary of the National Council of Churches for instance).  Had he received the necessary two-thirds vote, would we have accorded him this role?  Would we have expected him to interpret the faith in an official capacity?

            I want to start a conversation among those of us who participate in Free Church communions about this teaching role.  When we choose leaders for Regions and National Churches do we look for administrative abilities or teaching abilities?  To provide us with some fodder for discussion I want to provide a quotation from an 18th century pastoral care manual.  The author is Gilbert Burnet, then the Bishop of Salisbury in England.   He had written this manual, which I edited a number of years ago, for the clergy of his diocese.  In this manual he writes concerning the bishop’s role:
We have the several branches of our function, both as to preaching and governing, very solemnly laid upon us.  And both in this office,  as well as in all the other offices that I have seen, it appears, that the constant sense of all churches in all ages has been, that preaching was the bishop’s great duty, and that he ought to lay himself out in it most particularly.    [Gilbert Burnet’s Discourse of the Pastoral Care, edited by Robert D. Cornwall, (Lewiston, NY:  Edwin Mellen Press, 1997), p. 141].

            Yes, when we gather at General Assemblies the General Minister preaches (often it is more a report on the state of the church and not a teaching moment), but do we expect the same of our Regional Ministers?  Do we expect them to not only visit and assist, but bring a word from God to the congregations, teaching the churches the things of God?   For Burnet, it was assumed that a primary vocation was to study the Scriptures and bring interpretation of them -- do theological work for and with the churches.  Is that our assumption?

Friday, August 23, 2013

Rationality or Exuberance? Both?

Yesterday, at a Disciples of Christ related Facebook Group site, there was a rather vigorous discussion about the presence of Charismatic/Pentecostal elements with the Disciples.  Although there is a revivalist dimension to the Disciples tradition (Founder Barton Stone hosted the famous Cane Ridge Revival that featured a variety of spiritual phenomena), we have understood ourselves as a rational people.  Born on the frontier, the Disciples have roots in the Scottish Enlightenment.  Logic, facts, proof -- they were the watchwords of the day.  This embrace of reason, exemplified in the work of Alexander Campbell, who among other things was a noted debater, tended to put limits on the Spirit.  It was assumed that the Perfect spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13 had come in the form of the New Testament canon. Therefore, there was no longer a need for extraordinary gifts such as tongues-speaking or healing.  Pentecostalism was deemed inappropriate.  

God has spoken.  The words have been written down.  Now, we are to live accordingly.   It's not a matter of liberal versus conservative.  Both ends of the spectrum frowned on charismatic phenomena.  We may revel in Cane Ridge, but we have tried to distance ourselves from the more dramatic elements of that revival.  We will insist that it was a one time thing -- the result of people getting out of control and not the Spirit of God at work.  

One of the reasons I wrote my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening,(Energion 2013) was so that I could make sense of my own experience with God.  I spent about six years of my late teens and early twenties (high school/college) hanging out with Pentecostals.  I was a member/participant with two Foursquare Churches (the denomination founded by evangelist/healer Aimee Semple McPherson).  I experienced what folks call speaking in tongues, for the first time at a revival meeting at my church shortly before heading off to college.  I attended (and graduated from) a Disciples-related college.  There I was introduced to the rationalism of the Stone-Campbell movement.  By the end of my college career I found myself attracted to this faith community.  To be honest I found elements of my Pentecostal experiences to be anti-intellectual and I increasingly found the need for an infusion of something different.

So, for these past thirty plus years I have tried to make sense of this dual legacy.  Seminary provided me some of the resources I needed to make sense of things.  I took a class on spiritual gifts taught by two Fuller professors -- Russ Spittler and Mel Robeck -- who happened to be Assemblies of God ministers.  That class provided the foundation upon which I built my book.  

In the title of the post I posed a question -- rationality or exuberance.  I posed this as a set of opposites, but is that necessary?  Do we have to set mind and spirit as opposites?  Or can we, should we seek to attend both to the possibilities of the Spirit and be true to our rational selves.  

Let me give you an example.  I would say that much of life is lived according to reason.  I'm not Mr. Spock, but I try to reason things out.  I pursued higher education for this very reason.  But over my lifetime there have been moments when I simply didn't know how to pray.  I didn't know what to say to God.  And so I set aside my rational side and let the Spirit go free.  I would begin to utter what sounds like gibberish, and yet as I did so my own spirit was lifted.  I experienced a sense of peace.  

I value my traditions embrace of the mind.  I am on the left side of the center of the theological/political spectrum.  But I have come to recognize that there is great value in my Pentecostal side.  Last fall, I invited Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong to be the speaker for our church's annual Perry Gresham lectures.  I had shared the book manuscript with Amos and on the way to the airport as we talked about the book, I spoke of being a former Pentecostal.  Amos asked me why I used that term?  In other words, why be a former, just acknowledge that this is part of who I am.  I am both a Campbellite and a Pentecostal! (Barton Stone helps with the latter!)  

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Delving Ever Deeper into Scripture -- God is Still Speaking

I am working on my memorial service meditation for a member of my congregation.  Like a number of the older members of the congregation, she grew up at what we often call "Old Central Woodward," that is, the church building down on Woodward Avenue in Detroit (now Little Rock Baptist Church).  The family chose as one of the scriptures to be read -- 1 Corinthians 13.  It so happens that one of Edgar DeWitt Jones's sermons (the founding pastor) focuses on that text.  The sermon title gives the title to the book of sermons -- The Coming of the Perfect.

As I was reading through his sermon, I came across a lengthy quotation from an early liberal Disciple pastor named Alexander Proctor.  As Jones notes, Proctor didn't write any books, and the one collection of sermons that he did produce was published posthumously from remembrances of those who heard the sermons.  One of those sermons focused on 1 Corinthians 13 and the coming of the perfect.

In this sermon Proctor notes that we keep on learning new things.  Like astronomers peering into the sky theologians continue to look deeper into the scriptures, so that theology is never a fait accompli.  There is a paragraph from Proctor's sermon that I think is worth sharing.

The idea that one man has seen all that God has to show to the human mind!  The idea that one church in this world has seen and known all that God has to give to the world in all the eternal ages -- that is childish.  The idea that there is to be no more progress, no more growth, no more telescope!  But you say, what are you going to do with the Bible?  Well I am going to do with the Bible what Copernicus and Herschel and Kepler did with the sky; I am going to look into its sky an and see its Milky Way, and all the constellations of the zodiac; I shall investigate its splendor all the time, and seek to go further and further into it.  The Bible has been there all the time; it will be there when you and I are dead.  There will be other eyes, when we have gone, thank God, that can see more in it than we now see.  As for knowledge, "it shall pass away."  [Alexander Proctor, The Witness of Jesus, quoted in The Coming of the Perfect, (St. Louis:  Bethany Press, 1946), p. 23].  
Although I have nothing against creeds per se, I'm in agreement with my Disciples ancestors that they are but human attempts to understand the Christian message in a particular time and place.  They can never be definitive statements, because we are always growing in understanding.  We may discern a new word revealed in the biblical story that speaks anew to us.  I'm not a member of the United Church of Christ, but I do believe that God continues to speak.  We must, therefore, be ready to discern what is being said in our time and place!   

Let Us Work for Christian Unity -- Alternative Lectionary -- Proper 17 (David Ackerman)

As a Disciples of Christ pastor, it would seem imperative that I work for unity.  Unity is, after all, our "Polar Star" (Barton Stone).  In my personal life and ministry this has been a passion.  There are times and places, such as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and World Communion Sunday, when we focus on this topic.  But, do we really affirm the premise that Christians should seek unity?  In order to explore that question, the theme of David Ackerman's alternative lectionary --  Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary -- for Proper 17 is just that -- a call to work for Christian unity.  I should note that David is a pastor in the United Church of Christ, a tradition that also emphasizes the call to pursue Christian unity.  If you are looking for an alternative to the lectionary, perhaps this would be a good place to start!


Proper 17

September 1, 2013
“Let Us Work for Christian Unity”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:57-64 NRSV
One:  The Lord is my portion; I promise to keep your words.
Many:  I implore your favor with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise.
One:  When I think of your ways, I turn my feet to your decrees.
Many:  I hurry and do not delay to keep your commandments.
One:  Though the cords of the wicked ensnare me, I do not forget your law.
Many:  At midnight I rise to praise you, because of your righteous ordinances.
One:  I am a companion of all who fear you, of those who keep your precepts.
Many:  The earth, O Lord, is full of your steadfast love; teach me your statutes.
Gathering Prayer:  What a blessing it is to be here today!  God, we thank you that we can come together in this place as one.  Teach us to work through our differences so that in you we might show a unity that transcends all earthly barriers to being the people you call us to be.  Amen.
Confession:  In so many ways, we have promoted division and brokenness in our world over healing and wholeness.  When we look back on the ways that we have done this, we are truly sorry.  Forgive us, God, and help us to change, so that we might be drawn together into the perfect unity that you desire for us in Christ, our Savior.  Amen.
Assurance:  God has let go of the wrongs of our pasts and sets before us a future filled with hope.  Let us embrace this gift of mercy that God has given us, so we might grow more fully into the kind of life that God passionately wants for us.  Amen.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 12:1-20 – “Rehoboam and Division”
Romans 7:7-13 – “On the Inner Conflict”
John 7:40-44 – “Division about Jesus”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
What do you think are some of the lessons to be learned from the powerful story of the division of Israel in 1 Kings 12?  Are we ever guilty of making the same mistakes Rehoboam made?
What is Paul talking about in Romans 7?  Have you ever had something that, because it was specifically prohibited, made it more tempting for you to do?
John 7 talks about a division in the crowd over Jesus.  Are people still divided about him today? In what ways is the church divided over Jesus?  Does your church work toward Christian unity, and if so, how?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  God, we pray that we might be a family of faith whose members work to build each other up and not tear each other down.  Thank you for the ways in which we show such unity, and help us to work each day to make it a living reality in our world.  Amen.
Benediction:  Having listened for the wisdom of God today, may we go forth strengthened and encouraged to work for the unity of all believers in the name of our Messiah, Jesus.  Amen.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Beware: God at Work -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14C

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17

Beware:  God at Work

          Most religious folk have some inkling that God is there – doing something.  The questions are what and how.  For many supernaturalists, God is always busy – turning off the lights when needed, making sure the tides come in and out, and heal their every ailment.  For the Deists in our midst, God is largely finished.  God is or was the “first cause,” and since things have been set in motion, God is largely absent.  OK, maybe God does step in once in a while to tweak things. 

For those of us who recognize the input of modern science, the idea of an interventionist God is something of a problem.  Indeed, if God steps in to heal my cold, then why couldn’t God step in and prevent the holocaust.  The whole issue of evil compromises our efforts to embrace a God at work.  My panentheist friends suggest that God is in the system – always, and thus not intervening, simply inviting reality to move in a Godward direction.  I’m attracted to this message, but my Barthian self desires at least a bit of divine transcendence.  So it is with this sense of mixed feelings that I come to the texts for this week – texts that invite us to consider the work of God in our midst.

The call of Jeremiah is powerful.  Before you were born knew you and called you.  Jeremiah had no choice it seems.  His destiny was written from the start.  But, Jeremiah is so sure.  I’m a child.  I don’t how to speak.  I’m not ready.  You’ve made a mistake – go elsewhere!  But God is relentless.  No, you are gifted.  So use your gifts.  And don’t worry I’m there with you.  We may not be able to define how God is present, but the promise is there.  Don’t be afraid – I am with you.  So speak the words that I provide you.  Make them known.  And if you read Jeremiah, you know that the words he must proclaim aren’t easy ones and won’t be easily received.  There is reason to be afraid.  Every preacher knows this feeling.  You face an audience, people whom you love (perhaps), and you have received in your reading of scripture and reflections on the world, a word you believe is from God.   And yet it’s difficult to get it out.  You could get fired.  I’ve been forced to resign – so I know the feeling.  I may hold back at times – but God says to Jeremiah – don’t hold back.  I’ve given you the words.  I’ve appointed you over nations and empires – not as a political ruler – but as my representative, to remind the recalcitrant that God can and will dig up, pull down, destroy, and demolish.  But God can and will also build and plant.   These are difficult words, but I see the message.  In postmodern thought, there is the idea of deconstruction.  Old thoughts and ways of doing things need to be analyzed and deconstructed.  But if all we do is deconstruct, then we have failed in our calling.  For deconstruction must lead to reconstruction.  Sometimes things need to be take apart, but a room full of auto parts doesn’t make a car!  You have to put everything back together – and that is part of Jeremiah’s responsibility.

Whenever we read the Book of Hebrews we must do so with great caution.  There is a temptation to read it in a supersessionist manner, assuming that in Jesus the old (Judaism) is now passé and rejected, replaced by a better model.  Hebrews can and is read that way, but I have been sensitized to be careful about such things – especially in my encounters with the works of Ron Allen and Clark Williamson.   So with a degree of fear and trembling, we come to this passage where the author contrasts the old and new.  Once you weren’t allowed to come near God’s holy mountain.  Even Moses was afraid.  But now you have the opportunity to draw near to Mount Zion – to enter the presence of God and God’s assembly.  Jesus is portrayed here as the one who mediates this new covenant that allows for the people to draw near, and actually experience the presence of God. 

There is in this passage a strong word of judgment. Don’t resist the Word that comes from God.  You can’t escape if you reject the heavenly warning.   Remember that God’s voice shakes the earth and God is a consuming fire.   There is reason to be afraid, and yet there is hope – that which is not shaken, that which is not burned survives.  God’s realm is such a place.  It is the place God is building.  It is a place we can enter through Christ.   So, what is the take away?  Is it not a call to live life in such away as to affirm that which is most valuable?  Is it not a call to ask the question – where is God at work?  What lasts?  What fades away?  Should we not choose that which lasts – that which has eternal value?  Things pass away, love and relationships they endure. 

We can live our lives according to the rules and regulations, never stepping beyond the bounds of the law.  We live as “strict constructionists.”  Sometimes, in doing so, we miss seeing what God is doing in our midst.  Indeed, we can suppress the work of God.  We can also misunderstand God’s gifts. 

In Luke 13, Jesus is preaching in the synagogue.  It’s the Sabbath and the people are doing what you should do on the Sabbath – they’re in worship.  While he preaches a woman a disability, which Luke attributes to a spirit, is present in the service.  It doesn’t say that she approached him or asked for his help.  She’s just there.  Jesus notices her condition – she’s bent over and can’t stand up straight.  She’s been this way for eighteen years – that’s a long time to be experiencing what has to be a horrible and painful existence.  Jesus looks at her and places his hands on her and says:  “Woman, you are free from your sickness” (vs. 12 CEB).  And instantly, she stands up straight and she praises God.  To get a sense of what this might look like, think of a Pentecostal healing service.  When people are set free of whatever binds them, they always seem to want to jump around and shout.  She’s happy.  She’s free.  What would you do in her situation?

Well, the leader of the synagogue is none too pleased.  Such things aren’t to happen in the dignified setting that is worship.  Can you envision a guest preacher visiting a church, a church that believes that things should be done decently and in order?  Can you envision that preacher coming down out of the pulpit and laying hands on one of the members who happens to be sick or injured?  And causes a ruckus by setting the person free from their situation?  Is there not a time and a place for such things – outside the bounds of the service?  Yes, shouldn’t we be concerned about proper decorum?  Back in the early 1900s, when Pentecostalism emerged after the Azusa Street Revival, many good church people were scandalized by the behavior of the people.  And yet, people’s lives were changed.  They felt the presence and work of God in their midst.

In the reading from Hebrews we hear a word about focusing on what lasts, what is eternal.  In this reading from Luke, when the leader of the synagogue objects to this healing on the grounds that there are six days upon which one can do work there is no need to break decorum to take care of this situation.  After all, it’s not as if one more day with this disability would make a difference.  After eighteen years, what’s few more hours?  Jesus doesn’t say it in this moment, but in his response, I do him say – “Today is the day of salvation.”  What Jesus does is remind the leader that some work gets done on the Sabbath.  If one’s donkey or ox needs watering, you will untie the animal.  If you can make allowance for an animal to be sustained, can you not make allowance for this woman to be set free?  Yes, why wait one more day, when today is the day of salvation, the day of wholeness?  The leader has no response accept feel the shame that he didn’t value that which is eternal – the joy of freedom.  He had objected to this act of God that led to the praise of God.  As we hear this word, where have we placed ourselves in the position of the synagogue leader and suppressed the work of God’s Spirit?

In these passages we are reminded that God is at work.  Sabbath is good.  We need to stop and rest.  We need to trust our lives to God’s care – but in these passages we’re reminded that God doesn’t abide by our rules and regulations.  God won’t be limited by our need for decorum.  The prophets have spoken!      

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Problem of Judicatories -- more thoughts on church organization

Quite a number of years ago, perhaps when I was first serving as a pastor in Santa Barbara I became well acquainted with the word "judicatory."  Perhaps I'd missed it before because it's not a word we used in my circles -- Disciples.  What is a "judicatory?"  Well, as I remember a judicatory is that middle bureaucracy that lies between the congregation and its pastors and the national church, and maybe they're judicatories too!  In any case, I heard lots of complaints about the judicatories.  I think my colleagues used it in a rather derisive sense.  It is true that sometimes extra-congregational entities can prove to be a challenge to the life of a congregation.  They're designed to empower congregations to fulfill their calling, but at times they can draw away people and resources from congregations, inhibiting local ministry.  

In my post yesterday I raised the question of whether institutionalization is inevitable.  Dick Hamm, the former General Minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) wrote a very helpful response to my piece.  Reflecting on the decisions made at the time of Restructure to allow Agencies/Ministries and Regions to essentially appoint their own boards, opportunities for reform became more difficult.  He writes:

When Restructure occurred in 1968, we went only as far as we could go. When we permitted our bureaucracies to appoint and maintain their own boards (another expression of congregationalism), we made them bullet-proof. The only change that has since come to our regions and general units has been that which was led by regional ministers and unit presidents who had the insight, vision and skill to lead the change. Too often (certainly not always, thank God), regional ministers and unit presidents have focused on preventing needed reform rather than seeing the need for it and embracing it.

As Dick points out -- it takes leadership willing to lead the change, so that these entities can fulfill their purposes.

So, what is the purpose of these regions, which have emerged out of what were prior to restructure in 1968 State Societies (led by State Secretaries rather than Regional Ministers).  According to the Design, the governing document of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Regions (prior to Restructure in 1968 these were called State Societies) have this nature and purpose:

19. The primary nature of regions is drawn from the Acts of the Apostles in Paul’s desire to nurture, support, and engage congregations as unique entities and as gatherings of congregations related to one another in their mission. Regions should embody the character of the ministry to which Christ calls His people in their mutual commitment to Him and to one another. 
20. The primary purpose of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in regions is twofold: (1) to extend the ministry of Christ in mission, teaching, witness, and service among the people and social structures of the region; and (2) to establish, receive, and nurture congregations in the region, providing help, counsel, and pastoral care to members, ministers, and congregations in their mutual relationships, and relating them to the worldwide mission and witness of the whole church.

As you can see the stated purpose is for regions to assist congregations and their leaders, including pastors, fulfill their calling.  Congregations may have responsibility to the Region (as I've shown elsewhere), but the key point concerns how this is lived out.  Are judicatories a problem or an asset?  As Dick mentions in his comments, part of the answer is to be found in we the people who comprise congregations and regions and structures lying beyond.  What are we willing to live with?  And if you're part of a denomination like mine -- relatively small -- just think about what the Pope has to deal with!

In a future piece I plan to explore the idea of episcopacy and how this idea fits within the Disciples structures.  But in a congregation centered faith community, how does the Region as an entity fulfill its purpose?