Thursday, October 31, 2013

Luther, Faith, and Reformation Day

Today is Halloween for all the trick or treaters, but it has religious significance as well.  It was on All Hallows Eve (October 31), 1517 that Martin Luther, monk and professor of Bible at Wittenburg University famously nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the castle church -- at least that is the story.  I know there are questions about the facticity of the event, but he did issue a challenge to the church concerning what he perceived to be abuses.  I shall not go into them here.

I want to note that in part the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century has roots that go back much earlier and lasted well into the seventeenth century.  It was a complex movement that occurred both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church.  At one level the Reformation centered on the question of authority.  Early reformers such as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cramner, and Menno Simons sought to root their reforms in Scripture, placing church tradition below Scripture leading to the hallowed principle of Sola Scriptura.   Although the authority of the early fathers, councils, and even medieval theologians weren't rejected outright, the Reformers insisted that Scripture be seen as the norm for faith and practice.  All other authorities were to help interpret Scripture.  Of course, there were also church-state issues to sort through as well.  Then there are the purported abuses that the Reformers sought to address, including the selling of indulgences, the immorality of the renaissance papacy, as well as the perception of the general worldliness of the church,  all of which encouraged calls for reform. Some of these reformers, such as Erasmus and Ignatius Loyola chose to remain within the Catholic Church, while Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Thomas Cranmer, and Menno Simons broke with the Roman church.  

Luther's emergence as a Reformer was very personal, for it emerged out of his desire to find justification before God.  It was only as he discovered that justification, and therefore salvation, came from God by faith and not by works that he was able to embark on his reforming career.

There are many reasons and explanations for the Reformation, some have to do with theological concerns, such as justification by faith and scriptural authority, and others have to do with political considerations.  Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Cranmer are referred to as the Magisterial Reformers, not because of the majesty of their work, but because it was undertaken with the support and authority of the magistrate.  Wittenburg, Zurich, and Geneva, were all governed by princes or local councils who sought to gain autonomy from the Holy Roman Emperor.  Cranmer's Church of England had also broken with Rome over political concerns, and true reform occurred within that church only gradually, only really taking hold after 1559 and the Elizabethan settlement. 

Though Zwingli, Calvin and numerous other reformers contributed greatly to the success and expansion of the Protestant Reformation, its greatest figure has to be Martin Luther.  Luther, though he was a biblical theologian and not a systematic theologian, ranks with St. Paul and Augustine as the greatest among Christian theologians.  Thus it is logical that we begin with this "father" of the Reformation.

The Key to Luther's understanding of justification is his definition of faith, for we are, according to Luther and in line with the letter to the Ephesians, justified by grace through faith. For Luther faith was more than and intellectual adherence to truth.  For him, faith was  "an actual fellowship with God, in which man places all of his trust in God and looks to Him as the source of all good."  That is, faith, for Luther, was complete trust in God's mercy. 

As a result, Luther, understood justifying faith to be the acceptance of Christ's substitutionary death on the cross on our behalf.  Faith in the end is the work of God:

"Faith, however, is a divine work in us.  It changes us and makes us to be born anew of God (John 1)); it kills the old Adam and makes altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers, and it brings with it the Holy Ghost.  O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.  It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.  He who does not these works is a faithless man.  He gropes and looks about after faith and good works, and knows neither what faith is nor what good works are, though he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works."  [Martin Luther, "Preface to the Epistle to the Romans," in Works of Martin Luther, Philadelphia Edition, 6 vols., (Baker Book House, 1982), 6:451-452].
Although justification comes through faith, Luther made it clear that faith was not a virtue, that is being in the same vein as hope and love, but the receptive organ by which one receives God's gift of grace.  Faith in essence is an acceptance of the fact that God has already accepted us on the basis of the cross.

It is only as we understand God's acceptance of us in Christ that we can embark on the life of faith.  May this brief reflection be a beacon of hope on this last day of October, whether or not one considers oneself to be an heir of the Reformers.

God Helps Us through All of Life’s Storms -- Alternative Lections for Proper 27 (David Ackerman)


Life isn't a bed of roses, or at least a bed of roses minus the thorns.  We encounter many storms in life.  The question is -- can we put our trust in God in the midst of them?  In this set of readings for Proper 27 from Beyond the Lectionary, David Ackerman invites us to consider the way we live our lives.  Do we live in fear or in trust that God is with us, even in the storms of life.  If you're a preacher or a teacher perhaps this alternative set of readings will prove valuable.  Or perhaps this offering can be of use for pursuing your spiritual journey.  



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Proper 27


November 10, 2013
“God Helps Us through All of Life’s Storms”
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:169-176 NRSV
One:  Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word.
Many:  Let my supplication come before you; deliver me according to your promise.
One:  My lips will pour forth your praise, because you teach me your statutes.
Many:  My tongue will sing of your promise, for all your commandments are right.
One:  Let your hand by ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.
Many:  I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight.
One:  Let me live that I may praise you, and let your ordinances help me.
Many:  I have gone astray like a lost sheep, seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.
Gathering Prayer:  Bring us together, God, when we feel like lost sheep in a violent and hostile world.  Give us the endurance we need to face the trials that are before us.  Amen.
Confession:  There are times when we go astray and allow the winds of life to carry us away from being the people we know you want us to be.  So today we turn to you and ask that you would help us to keep our focus on you through all of life’s sufferings and storms.  Help us to forgive, and to find forgiveness in you, so that we may move ahead into the future that you long for us to enjoy.  Amen.
Assurance:  God sets us on solid ground and leads us to a place of serenity that transcends anything this world has to offer.  Let’s give thanks to God, then, who gives us true peace, real joy, and genuine love.  Amen.
ScripturesEcclesiastes 11:1-6 – “Bread upon the Waters”
Acts 27:1-2, 7-38 – “The Storm at Sea”
John 12:37-43 – “They Did Not Believe Him”
Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.
Reflection Questions:
What do you think is the meaning of Ecclesiastes 11:1:  “Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back”?
How is the story of the storm at sea in Acts 27 a parable about things that the early church faced?  What might the following symbols have meant to the early church:  a ship, a prison, a Roman centurion, violent winds, the third day, four anchors, staying in the ship, giving thanks, and breaking bread?  How might this story be a source of encouragement to us today when we feel hopeless and face hostility or division?
Why do you think people didn’t believe Jesus in John 12?  Are there times when we have honestly sought our own glory over God’s glory?
How might today’s readings speak to other events that your church may be observing today?
Can you recall a crisis or a storm that you went through?  What was that like?  Was your faith a source of help to you in that time?  Did God bring you through it?  How?
Prayer of Thanksgiving:  God, you continue to look after us even when we haven’t looked after ourselves the way we should.  Thank you for being there for us and for bringing us to your refuge of grace, mercy, and love.  Amen.
Benediction:  God will go with us when we go out this day.  So let’s trust that God will help us to weather the storms that we will face over time, and let’s live in such a way that we are really seeking God’s glory instead of our own.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 24C


Luke 19:1-10
 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One[a] came to seek and save the lost.”   (Common English Bible)

                Everyone who has gone through Sunday School probably knows the story of Zacchaeus.  He is probably better known for his shortness of stature than for his profession – that of the tax collector.  This encounter with Zacchaeus falls on the heels of Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  That parable focuses on attitudes and demeanor in prayer.  Now, we have an encounter that spells out the attitude described in the parable (Luke 18:9-14).   

In Luke 19, we get to encounter a real live tax collector, a person despised for his profession and the manner in which he performed his job.  Zacchaeus – note that he does have a name – is described as being the chief tax collector.  He was, in essence, the local mob boss.  Like many mob bosses (Don Corleone, for instance), he had gotten rich – largely on the backs of the people of the community in which he lived.  He worked for the Romans, but more importantly, he worked for himself.  Rome got its cut, but he got what he needed – from the tax payers, but also from the collectors who worked for him.  The Roman tax collection process worked something like a multi-level marketing scheme (think Amway or something like it) combined with a loan shark persona.  The realities that lie behind the work of the tax collector makes our traditional vision of Zacchaeus a bit untenable.  We think of his shortness of stature – the reason for climbing the tree to see Jesus – as a handicap or something like it.  His shortness didn’t keep him from being ruthless (think Louie DePalma of Taxi).

Whatever his stature, Jesus sees him up in the tree and invites himself over to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.  Once again we have a contrast of attitudes.  The people who see Jesus’ choice of dinner partner grumble.  Once again he’s hanging around with the wrong crowd – and as we all know “birds of a feather, flock together.”  The people find it difficult to see this meal as being redemptive.  They see Zacchaeus as one who lives beyond the pale, a person who cannot be saved.  Indeed, a person whose background suggests he doesn’t deserve to be saved.  But Jesus sees something different.  He doesn’t dismiss the dark side of Zacchaeus’ personality.  Nor does he see Zacchaeus’ good side outweighing the bad.    No, Jesus understands that Zacchaeus is bad to the bone, and yet Jesus also sees him as one who can be redeemed.  It’s not that Zacchaeus needs a little push so that his better side can come to the fore.  No, Zacchaeus is in need of a complete makeover.  And in his invitation to Zacchaeus, Jesus begins the process of redemption.

Yes Zacchaeus goes looking for Jesus, but perhaps Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus as well.  And it is the invitation that sets in motion the change in the life of the tax collector.  It is the invitation to come to the table that leads Zacchaeus to take the step of faith that leads to that change in his life.  “Lord, I give half my possessions to the poor . . . .”  And he offers to pay four times what he stole from the tax payers.  Now you might be wondering, why didn’t Jesus demand everything as he did with the rich young man?  I don’t know that answer to this.  Perhaps Zacchaeus needs more seasoning, but it’s clear that the encounter with Jesus has changed his life.  He has been redeemed – at the table.

            One of the debates that has long gone on within the Christian community concerns who is able to gather at the Table of the Lord.  Do you have to be baptized or confirmed?  Do you have to believe in Jesus?  Does your behavior warrant your inclusion at the table?  We don’t know exactly what the practices of the early Christians was, but by the second century measures were taken to make sure that only the properly initiated were allowed to participate in communion.  Many denominations limit access to the table to those who are members in good standing.  Others require at minimum baptism/confirmation or at least a firm belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior.  But interestingly, Jesus never puts these kinds of stipulations on whether one can eat with him.  What is clear, though, is that these dinner encounters, like the one with Zacchaeus, prove life changing.  

          Could it be that this story offers us a foundation for understanding the Eucharist as an ordinance of conversion and redemption?  I realize that not everyone who comes to the table and shares in the cup and the bread experiences a life changing encounter with Jesus, but who are we to bar someone from having that opportunity?  And if, as I do, one believes that Jesus is truly present in the service of Holy Communion, whether we are fully aware or appreciative of that fact, then shouldn’t Jesus’ practice, the practice that redeems Zacchaeus, be the practice of the church today?   For as Jesus says – his mission is to come and find and save the lost.    

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Evangelical Pullback/Retreat-- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Are conservative Christians stepping back from the culture wars?  It's a good question. Pope Francis isn't a theological liberal, but he is calling on Catholics to turn their attention to issues like poverty and away from social issues.  Many evangelicals are also refocusing their attention to issues of social justice.  So where are the trends leading?  Martin Marty helps us think through these issues in this week's Sightings post.

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Evangelical Pullback/Retreat
by MARTIN E. MARTY
Monday | Oct 26 2013
 Nick Forslund / Compfight         
The public is getting used to headlines like these: “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback from Culture Wars” and “Southern Baptists Sounding Full-scale Retreat in Culture War?” The former is from The Wall Street Journal and the latter from Renew America. The theme has become a constant in the blog world and among public media, just as it has become a topic of conversation in churches, and wherever “culture wars” have been standard unsettlers, and where innocent bystanders have been unsettled.

Preoccupying topics come and go in the media and public forums. As I compare notes with those who are “on the road” with lectures and at conferences, and check my own recall of responses and questions from colleagues on platforms or from audiences on campuses, at churches, and in public colloquies, this stands out: while “culture wars” remain, the names of the cast of characters, their causes, and their focuses change.

Last month during a question period after my talk on a campus someone asked what I thought of the future of The Christian Right. As an historian, I don’t professionally deal with futures, but, rummaging around in chronicles of the past, it came to me: no one had asked about that in the last couple of years. Store it away with troubled and troubling questions about “The Moral Majority,” “The Christian Coalition,” and less confrontational questions about, e.g., “The New Age.”

None of these are gone without a trace; each leaves a deposit on a tradition which is being revised and re-presented. But, as the two headlined stories mentioned above suggest, we have new situations.

Both articles featured “Russell Moore, the principal public voice of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Renew America, which swings more widely and wildly from the right than the Journal  does, included Catholics in its sweep. Author Bryan Fischer reported that conservative Catholics are expressing alarm at Pope Francis’s rebuke of those in the Church who were “obsessed” about culture-war issues like same-sex marriage.

What is going on? Leaders named in these stories, and throughout mainline Protestant ranks, among Catholics-in-the-pew—who are only sometimes in step with those bishops who lead a faction in culture wars—and, now, most significantly, among Evangelicals are changing. These leaders rose from relative obscurity outside the South to become the headliners in culture wars. They are taking new looks. Many report that they have “lost” the young, who desert the pews (but not always the concerns which religion addresses), and are unsure of their place in Latino Catholic/Evangelical and now Black Protestant circles. The “obsessions’ of which the Pope spoke, do not obsess them. They may be indifferent to many religious agencies and outreaches, but they are not responding to the call to be “different” on culture-war lines.

Most significant in the eyes of many observers is the secularization (though sometimes under religious banners) of the Right, be it Far Right or Pretty Far, as in the Tea Party. Many participants in the T.P., according to polls, line up as being religious, but they are in coalition with forces that pay little attention to biblical and churchly calls. Most of their participation is frankly secular and pragmatic, which makes them hard to rally or to count on in the religious side of the culture warriors’ ranks.

Sensitive leaders like the Pope, Russell Moore, and great numbers of those who would be faithful to their core values but can’t live with the peels, are more and more the new agents of change.

Rather than "secularization," we might speak of "de-churchification," because, while we note that churches are pulling back from extreme Right Wing connections, religious rhetoric and appeals do remain strong on the Right. "People for the American Way” can supply a vivid anthology of this rhetoric in their calendar, Right Wing Watch, which features, each month, a picture and quotations from well-worn "old pros” like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, etc.. The only "newer pros” quoted or featured—Ted Cruz, Mario Rubio, Rand Paul—are more identified with their partisan political expressions than their church ties or evangelical appeals.

For further reading:

King Jr., Neil. “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” The Wall Street Journal, October 21, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324755104579072722223166570.

Fischer, Bryan. “Southern Baptists sounding full-scale retreat in culture war?” RenewAmerica newsletter, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 27, 2013. http://www.renewamerica.com/columns/fischer/131023.

Boston, Rob. “Retreating Or Repositioning?” Southern Baptists and the ‘Culture War’. Americans United, Wall of Separation blog, October 23, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013. https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/retreating-or-repositioning-southern-baptists-and-the-culture-war.

Riley, Naomi Schaefer. “Russell Moore: From Moral Majority to ‘Prophetic Minority’.” The Wall Street Journal, August 16, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2013. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324769704579010743654111328

People for the American Way. www.PFAW.org.

Right Wing Watchrightwingwatch.org.

Image Credit: Nick Forslund / Compfight
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.


Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.
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Monday, October 28, 2013

Breaking through Barriers

One of our first stops on our trip to Southern California was to Angelus Temple, the mother church of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  For those not familiar with the Foursquare denomination (one of my own denominational stops), it was founded in the early 1920s by evangelist Aimee Sample McPherson.  Long before many mainline Protestant denominations were ordaining women, Aimee heard a call from God and never looked back. 

I have long been fascinated by Aimee.  I dare say that the vast majority of members of the denomination she founded know her name.  Few know of the barriers she broke through.  Consider that at age 17 she married a young evangelist and headed off to China, where her husband died soon after they arrived leaving her pregnant and stranded.  She found her way home, remarried, had another child, and headed out on the road.  She didn't have a strong formal education, but she had a powerful sense of call, believing that if God had gifted her, then she couldn't say no. 

After preaching along the eastern seaboard, Aimee, accompanied by her mother and two children drove across the country from New York to Los Angeles.  Now, this was 1918 -- long before interstates or even paved roads in many parts of the country.  They made it across the continent, and then before long had found a spot to build a church (that would seat 5000), and gain the attention of a nation.  She was also the first woman to preach on radio and own her own radio station.  In a day in which it is important that church leaders be media savvy, she borrowed from Hollywood to provide her famed "illustrated sermons." Among her advisors was Charlie Chaplin.

Yes, she was controversial.  She wasn't a perfect person and her theology is not mine, and yet in spite 
of her personal frailties, she persevered and shared the gospel as she understood it. In reflecting on Aimee's life, I wonder about how boundaries get broken.  When people told Aimee she should not preach because women are to be silent in the church, she appealed to her gifts and calling and asked her detractors how she could say no to God.  How indeed?

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Christian or Not, Ghanianians Continue to Rely on Traditional Healers. -- Sightings

As Christianity penetrated new areas it has had to wrestle with the cultural dynamics of the receiving cultures.  In this piece, Alice Brown introduces us to the Ghanaian experience, where the majority of the population sees itself as Christian yet makes use of traditional healers.  I invite you to read and engage in conversation with the author.

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Christian or Not, Ghanaians Continue to Rely on Traditional Healers
by ALICE BROWN
Thursday | Oct 24 2013
Credit: MamaYe Africa / flickr        
Ghana is a predominately Christian country, with only a small fraction of the population following “traditional” religious practices. According to a 2010 census, 71 percent of Ghana’s 25 million people identify themselves as Christian, while only 5 percent say they believe in traditional religion. Ghana is also an elder-oriented society, in which kinship plays an important role. Traditional healing by herbalists, fetish priests, and psychics co-exists alongside science-based medicine.

Many Ghanaian Christian religious leaders give a resounding "no" when asked whether "traditional" healing practices are part of their faith, but reliance on healers remains a central issue for the effective delivery of medical care in Ghana.

Convincing people to seek treatment, often available at a low cost from faith-based clinics remains a challenge. In rural areas, the sick can’t afford the high cost of travel to towns and cities where most clinics are located. Traditional healers charge less money; they are also in touch with the social realities of their communities and have a psychotherapeutic rapport with the local people. They successfully create and maintain good reputations, which aids them in their healing practices.

There are other reasons why Ghanaians continue to rely on healers. The medical sociologist, Patrick Twumasi, explains that in the traditional Ghanaian belief system, deviant behavior may result in sanctions from the spiritual world—ill health is one of the punishments inflicted for a breach in social relations. Further, Twumasi reports, the individual’s awareness of his dependence on his kin and ancestors in the search for cures and treatments is linked to the prevalent belief that the health of body is connected to the health of spirit. Many, if not most, diseases are seen as manifestations of supernatural powers. Causal explanations take on a magico-religious tenor.

A Ghanaian health practitioner, who works with the United Nation’s Population Fund, described Ghanaians as "floating" between the traditional practices of visiting healers and science-based medicine, even those who identify as Christian. She also
emphasized the importance of distinguishing between two kinds of traditional medicine: herbal remedies and the voodoo practices of fetish priests or priestesses.

Ghanaians make up the largest African immigrant group in New York City, with a population of roughly 24,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Among them are healers, including the fetish priest, Mr. Kwaku Bonsam, who recently created quite a stir (see the New York Times article referenced below). Ties to the homeland and the comfort of familiar rituals add to the power these healers wield over recent immigrants. Healers are an attractive option to Ghanaians who fear going to the hospital or accepting help from social workers due to their undocumented status, or for whom the financial burden of medical treatment is too great especially without insurance. Immigrants willingly pay healers for purported remedies. Easy targets for exploitation, they go looking for help in traditional places.

In addition to being sensitive to the feelings of vulnerability Ghanaian immigrants may possess, aid organizations and service departments must examine how fetish priests like Mr. Bonsam use traditional beliefs to gain a large following and target these communities with outreach programs accordingly. Understanding the origin of the cultural practices that cause Ghanaians to seek out healers is crucial to assisting these immigrants with education and local support as they assimilate to life in the United States.

Ghana is often lauded as a regional model for its political stability, economic viability, education, healthcare, and other services which far surpass those in neighboring West African countries. However, a sharp contrast exists between the living conditions of the urban middle class and of the people in remote areas of the countryside. Just last year, UNICEF reported that 400,000 children remain out of school due to "irregular" circumstances.

Inequality between men and women persists throughout the region. To improve the social and economic empowerment of Ghanaian women, more steps must be taken to educate them about preventive health care. Religious organizations have led the way in establishing programs to improve education and communication, and in training local workers to deliver basic medical treatment in rural areas, but much work remains to realize true change.
For further reading:

Lipinski, Jed. “A Visit From the Devil: Feared Traditional Priest from Ghana Spends a Year in the Bronx.” The New York Times, July 19, 2013. Accessed October 21, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/21/nyregion/feared-traditional-priest-from-ghana-spends-a-year-in-the-bronx.html.

Allman, Jean Marie. The Quills of the Porcupine:  Asante Nationalism in an Emergent Ghana. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993.

Fosu, Gabriel B. “Access to Health Care in Urban Areas of Developing Societies.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 30:4, 298-411 (December 1989).

Rathbone, Richard. Murder and Politics in Colonial Ghana. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Twumasi, Patrick A. “History of Pluralistic Medical Systems: A Sociological Analysis of the Ghanaian Case.” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 9:3, 29-34 (Autumn 1979).

Photo Credit: MamaYe Africa / flickr.
Author, Alice Brown, (A.B., UChicago, 2005) is currently finishing her Ph.D. in French literature at the University of Paris VII Diderot. Her research interests include the cultural and linguistic impacts of France and America on North West Africa.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.
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Friday, October 25, 2013

God Helps Us in Our Grief -- Alternative Lectionary -- Proper 26 (David Ackerman)

We return to the alternative lectionary with the guidance of David Ackerman.  For many this will be an opportunity to observe All Saints Day.  We are enabled to delve into the path of grief and faith through these texts.  May they prove to be a blessing.

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Proper 26


November 3, 2013
 
“God Helps Us in Our Grief”
 
Call to Worship:  Psalm 119:161-168 NRSV
One:  Princes persecute me without cause, but my heart stands in awe of your words.
Many:  I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil.
One:  I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law.
Many:  Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.
One:  Great peace have those who love your law; nothing can make them stumble.
Many:  I hope for your salvation, O Lord, and I fulfill your commandments.
One:  My soul keeps your decrees; I love them exceedingly.
Many:  I keep your precepts and decrees, for all my ways are before you.

Gathering Prayer:  In the midst of our days, you gather us, and we pray that in the time that we spend together we might look to you as our help and our hope.  Amen.

Confession:  So often, God, we are unaware of the passing of time or the things that are happening all around us.  We rarely reflect on our own breathing and are too often inattentive to your presence among us.  Our ignorance has caused us to wander away from you, so as we turn to you now, we ask your forgiveness.  Change us, so that we might look to you in all of life’s circumstances and give you honor, praise, and glory.  Amen.

Assurance:  God is nearer to us than our closest breath and releases us from the sins of yesterday.  As a people who have been set free by grace, let us lean into these coming moments confident that the Holy Spirit is indeed present to us.  Amen.

Scriptures
Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 – “The House of Mourning”
James 4:11-17 – “You Are a Mist”
John 11:55-57 – “That They Might Arrest Him”

Commentaries and sermon ideas are available in Beyond the Lectionary.

Reflection Questions:
All Saints’ Day often falls around the time of this Sunday.  Can you recall going to a funeral (or making a visit to a funeral home) for someone who died who you thought of as a saint?  What was that like?  Do the words of Ecclesiastes 7 make sense in a place like that?

Carefully read through the proverbs in Ecclesiastes 7:1-14.  Which ones stand out for you?  Are there any that you disagree with or really like?  Why do you like or dislike them?

Consider James 4:11-17.  If you can remember someone who died who was like a saint to you, how did you make it through that time of loss?  Was it a reminder to you of how quickly things can change or how short life can be?

Some leaders plan to arrest Jesus in today’s selection from John 11.  Can you imagine what it must have felt like for Jesus when he was arrested?  Have you ever been in a prison or visited anyone in prison?  What was that like?

In the southern hemisphere, the days are getting longer and spring is in full bloom.  How will today’s readings on the passing of life sound to those for whom life is budding all around?

Does time go fast or slow for you?  Do you sometimes feel trapped in time?  How do reminders of our mortality cause us to reflect on how we live the days we have been given in this world?  What might it mean for us to live “saintly” lives in the here and now?

Prayer of Thanksgiving:  In the time you have given us, God, help us to show genuine gratitude for the opportunity we have to live and breathe in this amazing world.  Amen.

Benediction:  Now is the time to go and share with the world the good news of a time outside of time, a realm of possibility where God offers new life, love, and hope.  Let us go, giving thanks to God who is with us in life, in death, and in life beyond death.  Amen.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Beginnings

I need to preface what I'm about to write by noting that I am a minister in a faith tradition that practices believer baptism.  My own theology of baptism reflects this tradition.  I have my reasons for believing this way, but this is not the time to share it.

I was born and raised in the Episcopal Church, a faith tradition that practices infant baptism.  I was later the recipient of confirmation by the bishop of Eastern Oregon.  Still later I was immersed while at a high school camp (I was at that time part of a Foursquare Church).  But back to my baptism in the Episcopal Church.

I was baptized sometime after my birth at St. Luke's of the Mountains Episcopal Church of La Crescenta, California.  The priest was Father Sadler.  I don't have the exact date, but it was prior to our move to San Francisco nine months after my birth at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles (now the Dream Center, a ministry of Angelus Temple, the mother church of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel).  Yesterday I paid a visit to St. Luke's.  It was my first visit since our move north at age nine months (and I don't remember the church back then -- obviously).  I made this visit as part of my own spiritual pilgrimage.  This church is one of the few existing symbols of my earliest days (the house of my earliest days was removed to make way for the Foothill Freeway).  So I made my visit.

I've added a few photographs to this post, including a picture of a font.  It's not the font used at my baptism.  This font is a more recent addition, but it will have to suffice.  As you can see this is a rather simple structure -- but also a very beautiful one.  The outside walls are made of stone.  Inside there are exposed beams and off white walls.  It is simple and yet it speaks of the presence of the Spirit.  It is a sacred space that nourishes relationships with God and inspires love of neighbor.  St. Luke's is a congregation that you might say experienced death and resurrection.  The congregation left the Episcopal Church for an Anglican off shoot, but the diocese managed to get the property back and plant a new congregation.  I am fortunate that this congregation's ministry continues on so that I could make my pilgrimage.                

I entitled this post "beginnings."  I did so because this little church is symbolic of my own
beginnings.  By making this trek I have been able to touch base with a moment in my life that I was too young to comprehend.  But as I took in this place of gathering for God's people, I found myself reconnected to the starting place of my journey.  Although I don't practice infant baptism in my own ministry, I sensed that something important occurred in that moment in time that has sustained my journey.

Perhaps you have a point of beginnings like this one.  As you contemplate the words and the pictures, perhaps they will stir a sense of your own starting place.  We can't live in the past, but our present and future is linked to these founding moments.  May God bless our moments of reflection.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thanksgiving and Secularization -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Although Halloween is the next holiday, Thanksgiving is just weeks away.  It has become the key moment in our consumerist society, when we head out to the stores to get the good deals for Christmas.  Martin Marty takes note of those who resent the encroachment of secularization on this holiday that once had religious observances attached.  Marty notes that services once held on Thursday morning and then sent to Wednesday evening have faded away.  I will add that there still are services -- but often poorly attended.   Rather than resent and whine, Marty offers some sage advice -- advice we might carry over into the Christmas season.   


Thanksgiving and Secularization
by MARTIN E. MARTY
Monday | Oct 21 2013
 djLicious / flickr
Having had enough of talk about Congress and the Affordable Care Act and “default,” let’s look ahead, not back. I propose a glance at the calendar, with Thanksgiving Day several weeks off. It is in the news already because Macy’s stores, one of which is close, across the street from us, have announced that they are opening and selling in the course of Thanksgiving Day, and are taking heat for announcing that they will do so.

For religiously sensitive citizens, such a change is one more evidence of secularization. They resent it. The epigraph to Jeffrey Stout’s chapter on “Secularization and Resentment” in his fine book, Democracy and Resentment, quotes John R. Bowlin: “Resentment is easy. Theology is hard.”

Stout chronicles complaints by religious thinkers about “secularization,” which can mean so many things. Let’s look at what has happened to Thanksgiving Day.

Decades ago, when advising the BBC about a series on world religions and asked about how to “cover” Protestantism in the United States, I suggested that they come in Thanksgiving Week to observe, interview, and document. Why? At that time Thanksgiving Day was a religio-secular highlight, ecumenically Christian and “interfaith.” In many communities there were worship services on Thanksgiving morning, before the big familial fests.

Many complications arose, and soon some retreated to Wednesday night worship, and, progressively, joint worship and worship of any sort faded. We were left with commerce as the main agent for idiosyncratic forms of communal expression.

Soon “Black Friday” was invented as a great economic booster for pre-Christmas sales. Manic scenes of shoppers followed. And, now, “Black Thursday” has begun to edge out religious, familial, and communal experiences in thousands of communities and millions of homes.

Isn’t that to be resented? Rather than resent, many use the occasion to “do theology” and engage in hard religious and cultural analysis and conversation. What has become clear is that millions of the resenters are accomplices. Macy’s and Wal-Mart and JCPenney’s and Target and other sometimes expansive, often desperate retailers, need to adapt and anticipate the expressions and demands of commerce.

Most phenomena that get tagged as “secularizing” agents and events occur because of practical adaptations and the choices citizens make. One hears of the challenges of atheism and how it chips away at worship, the sacred, and more.

Look again: Nietzsche and Company long ago and Dawkins and the “new atheists” now get blamed by resenters, but changes in behavior, observance, and setting of priorities are far more powerful. Two weeks ago I could look out the window or down the street (on the way to church I am supposed to say) on Sunday morning while tens of thousands of marathoners run by for good causes and self-improvement. Not many include worship or the thought of worship on what many of their grandparents called “the Lord’s Day.”

Abandoning sanctuaries and worship for shopping and running is only one of the many ways a public “secularizes.” Those who put their energies into resenting may be pointing to the main factors that produce “secularization,” however defined.

If they divert energies from pointless whining to positive affirmations of faith and community and inventing new approaches, they are likely to achieve some surprising results about which they and the larger public could be thankful. They could be generous enough to say Happy Black Thursday, and Happy Black Friday to those who choose to make or, let’s face it, have to make, other choices about that formerly holiday weekend.

References:

Tuttle, Brad. “Hey Thanksgiving Shoppers: Macy's Isn't the Only One to Blame for Ruining the Holiday.” Time, October 19, 2013. Accessed October 20, 2013.http://business.time.com/2013/10/19/hey-thanksgiving-shoppers-macys-isnt-the-only-one-to-blame-for-ruining-the-holiday/.

Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Image Credit: delicious / flickr
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.


Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She was a 2012-13 Marty Center Junior Fellow.