Monday, June 30, 2014

MARRIED OR SINGLE -- What's God got to do with it?

          In Genesis 2 we read that God saw that the man was lonely, and God created a companion who was fit for him.  That reading from Scripture is recognition that we as humans need some kind of human community.  We have often read that passage as the foundation for marriage, and because the two partners are male and female it’s easy to assume that marriage involves a male and a female.  As we’re witnessing, the definition of what accounts for marriage is changing.  Not everyone is in agreement with the changes, but the courts and opinion polls are pointing us in the direction of change.

            I’m working on bible study guide on the topic of marriage.  I’ve already posted one piece dealing with the story of Laban, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel.  I noted there that definitions of marriage and family evolve over time.  They are cultural/social constructs that reflect their context. Before I move into the conversation about marriage, it would be helpful to recognize that not everyone gets married.  Not everyone wants to be married.  There are issues of sexual propriety, which itself is evolving.  Where does sexual intimacy belong?  That’s a question that I’m going to leave for a different time and place.

            Instead I want to ask the question of whether one can live a fulfilled human life, experience companionship, but not experience embodied sexual intimacy?  Can one be single in all its forms and be fulfilled?  We don’t use the terms anymore – but back in the day, at least with women, women who weren’t married were considered Old Maids.  As for men, well there was always some suspicious about them – maybe they enjoyed bachelorhood too much. 

            As we think about this question it is good to remember that the gospels seem to suggest that Jesus was single.  Did he contemplate intimacy as his Last Temptation, as the Nikos Kazantzakis novel and Martin Scorsese film suggest?  The Gospels don’t speak of this, but if Jesus was truly human, then wouldn’t the concept of human intimacy be something he dealt with? After all, in first century Jewish life, marriage was expected for most men (and women).

            Paul deals with this question more directly.  In the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with marriage and sexual intimacy.  I’ll deal with this passage in more depth when we come to the question of mutuality in marriage, but in this passage, which some have taken as a negative portrayal of human intimacy.  An earlier version of the NewInternational Version, translated verse 1 as:  “Now for the matters you wrote about:  It is good for a man not to marry.”  In the more recent version, the translators have brought the translation into line with current thinking – the message about refraining from sexual relations or marriage wasn’t Paul’s idea, it was that of a certain group of Corinthians.   Since then, the translators have added the necessary quote marks.

            That said, in verse 7, Paul does seem to suggest that his embrace of the idea of marriage is a concession to human lust.  Paul seems to imply that he would prefer that everyone would be like him – single and celibate.  But if you can’t, get married.  In context, Paul is writing from a rather apocalyptic perspective.  He’s assuming that Christ will return soon to bring an end to this age, and thus the need to be married and have children gets in the way of the mission.  Living as we do some two thousand years later, it would seem that Paul was incorrect in his calculations.  So, maybe it’s okay to get married, have a family, and live with some sense of normalcy.  That is, it would seem to be the final message of The Last Temptation of Christ (at least the movie version as I’ve not read the novel).       

            But there is something interesting about this statement that Paul makes about celibacy.  He sees it as a charism, a spiritual gift.  Paul seems to suggest that this is a higher charism, than giving in to the need for sexual intimacy.  That is probably the way Paul saw it, and it has influenced ascetic and monastic movements from that day to the present.  While Paul may have thought this way, perhaps we can read this somewhat differently, and recognize that whether single or married, we can live in relationship with God, and be blessed by that relationship, and we can out that relationship in a variety of ways.  It could involve marriage.  It might not.  Either way, we live in blessed communion with God and with neighbor.   Singleness and marriage – are these not two charisms, two different ways, in which we live in the Spirit?  Either way, we can be a blessing to the community in which we live.    
            It seems to me, that for Paul singleness was to be valued because it gave greater opportunity for undistracted work for God.  One who is married must take into consideration the needs, desires, and welfare of his or her spouse before embarking on a work, but the single person will not have this distraction (I Cor. 7:32-35).  This does not make marriage bad and celibacy good, Paul simply recognizes that there are benefits to the single life.  In an age when an unmarried person was frowned upon, this passage gives great freedom.  Not everyone must be married or have children if they are to please God.  By the same token, one can serve God and be married.  If one chooses to be married, then this relationship should be fully sexual.  One need not prove one's spirituality by practicing sexual abstinence in marriage.  So, whatever condition one finds oneself, let us be available to God.

            Of course, I write this as one who has been married for thirty-one years.  I write this as one who has shared in numerous weddings and I’ve pronounced blessings on these marriages.  I’ve looked to Genesis 2 as a word of wisdom about the need for community.  But, it is also clear that community takes many forms.  So, whether married or single, one can be used by God.  

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Christians in China Have a Message for the West: -- Sightings (Paul H.B. Chang)

The story of Christianity in China is an amazing one.  Missionaries have been going to China for centuries, but at the time that the Communists kicked them out in 1949, the church was still rather small.  Since then it has boomed -- without the help of Western Missionaries.  Yes, it has suffered persecution, but the church has thrived nonetheless.  In this helpful essay, Paul Chang invites us to dwell not on the persecution suffered, but the values developed -- values that are appealing to Chinese people growing ill at ease by the hyper capitalism that has grabbed a hold of the nation.  Take a look, read, and consider!

Christians in China Have a Message for the West: Don't Focus on Our Oppression, Focus on Our Values
Thursday | June 26 2014
The Holy Family                                               Image Credit: Olaer / Elmer Anthony (flickr Creative Commons)
Like many Chinese Christians of his generation, Brother Bai had a stirring autobiography shaped by China’s tumultuous 20th century. He told me matter-of-factly that he had been imprisoned twice for his religious beliefs. The first time he had been sentenced to five years, the second time to nine. He made a surprising admission: his nine years in prison had been much easier than the earlier five because he had learned how “to call on the name of the Lord.”

When taking an interest in Chinese Christianity, the Western media usually focuses on conflicts between Christians and their government. If we seek out the words and testimonies of Chinese Christians themselves, however, we find that most have never experienced direct persecution. Furthermore, even those who have undergone significant personal suffering often explain their persecution in unexpected ways.

While the events recounted by Brother Bai were especially dramatic, during a recent research trip to China, I talked to a number of Christians who had similar stories. Although they had been singled out for their faith, they were resolute and calm. They explained that they harbored no grudges and frequently prayed for the Communist government as well as for the neighbors, officials, and others who had accused, persecuted, and tormented them.

Though it captures audience share, the Western media’s narrow attention on Chinese government crackdowns does a disservice to that country’s Christians. The focus on persecution offers a one-sided depiction of their experiences and fails to convey their core values. When asked specifically about government oppression, one Chinese Christian leader defined “persecution” as secularism, materialism, and greed. Such a response gets closer to the heart of the actual concerns of Chinese Christians.

Even if they do not convert, many Chinese consider Christianity to be an effective antidote to rampant corruption and moral vacuity. The main barrier to the spread of Christianity in China is not official opposition but the common woes faced by human beings trying to survive in a globalized, hyper-capitalist society. Millions of Chinese work in urban factories, doing uninspiring work for low wages. At the same time, they face increasing evidence that material success does not bring joy. Even among China’s economic elite, there is a growing sense of spiritual emptiness.

In contrast to Western philosophy, Chinese metaphysics tends to emphasize the ethical and practical over the speculative. Like many contemporary Christians throughout the world, Chinese Christians insist that God is concerned with the quotidian details of human life: financial pressures, family problems, and so on.

In particular, Chinese Christian theology is marked by the kind of paradoxical ecstasy achieved through discipline and self-denial. The ethical rigor typical of Chinese thought is a natural complement to Christianity’s tradition of asceticism and mysticism. This explains why a middle-aged Christian who had spent substantial time in prison asserted that it had been a salutary experience, arranged by God, through which Christ had dealt with his “self”—by which he implied his ego, self-centeredness, and natural hubris.

Many factors have contributed to the equanimity and even joy with which self-denial is preached and practiced. For one thing, the Chinese emphasis on “doing” over theory led to the development of a number of popular spiritual disciplines. For instance, Brother Bai referenced the practice of invoking Jesus’ name audibly, a spiritual discipline widely associated with the teachings of Witness Lee (1905-1997, 李常受, Pinyin: Lǐ Chángshòu), one of the most profound and important Chinese Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

Lee and the local churches that followed his teachings pioneered various forms of private and public worship that were easily accessible to lay audiences. In so doing, they introduced lay believers to the virtuoso mysticism of traditional Christianity and infused it with new vibrancy.

More importantly, Chinese Christians understand that mystical ecstasy is not an end in itself. They see their actions as directed toward a higher goal. In particular many believe themselves to be part of the final chapter in a long Christian story, the closing act that will usher in Jesus Christ’s return. This belief bestows profound meaning to their lives. Living in a society in which they observe that pleasure and money do not fill the soul, their theology is decisively self-sacrificial and purposive.

Chinese Christians have discovered powerful theological responses to the apparent insignificance and grinding pressures of modern human life and they are enthusiastically seeking to share this message with the world. For most Chinese Christians, the story of their faith is not one of imprisonment, but of liberation.
References and Further Reading:

Fulton, Brent and Jan Vermeer. “China Isn’t Trying to Wipe Out Christianity.” Christianity Today, February 25, 2013. Views/Speaking Out.

Johnson, Ian. “Chinese Atheists? What the Pew Survey Gets Wrong.” The New York Review of Books, March 24, 2014, NYR Blog.

Gardam, Tim. “Christians in China: Is the country in spiritual crisis?” BBC News, September 12, 2011, Magazine.

Hardenberg, Donata. “Christianity: China’s best bet?” Aljazeera, July 1, 2011, In Depth Features.

Image Credit: Olear / Elmer Anthony (flickr Creative Commons)
Author, Paul H. B. Chang, is Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is a 2013-14 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center. Chang's dissertation focuses on 20th Century Chinese Christianity and its implications for the development of World Christianity.

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, June 27, 2014

Slow Church (Chris Smith & John Pattison): A Review

SLOW CHURCH: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. By C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison.  Downer’s Grove:  Intervarsity Press, 2014.  246 pages.

                The song goes like this:  “Slow down, you move to fast, you’ve got to make the morning last . . .”  The Simon and Garfunkel song celebrates having “fun and feeling groovy” (very 1960s), but perhaps it is a clarion call to our society, and to the church, which has embraced speed and efficiency.   It’s not just fast food that we embrace; it’s speed in all its forms – especially its technological forms.   The growing impatience that marks our culture is, as one would expect, making itself felt in the church.  We need to get in and get out quickly, because we’ve got so much to do.  The lure of the megachurch is due in part to this felt need for speed and efficiency.  Turn off the freeway, turn right into the parking lot, get your spiritual tank filled up, and off you go.

                I’m not a Ludite, so I welcome speed.  I even am glad that there is such a thing as fast food; especially fast casual food (thank you Chipotles).   That said, this book written by Chris Smith and John Pattison is a welcome reminder that a thriving Christian community requires that we stop and smell the roses.  Their book, Slow Church, picks up on the emerging slow food movement, a movement that stresses local ingredients prepared carefully and slowly so that the flavors of the food can emerge.  It is a response to the McDonaldization of the church, where community is sacrificed in the name of efficiency.

The authors of the book have emerged from congregations that have stressed community building.  Chris is a member of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis.  This former megachurch in a declining urban context has found new life by stressing community and being present in the neighborhood.  They have focused their attention on things like economic development and housing for the poor.  John is the pastor of Silverton Friend’s Church, an evangelical congregation located in a small Oregon town lying at sufficient distance from the city of Salem to retain its own identity.  I should note that the pastor of the Disciples’ church in Silverton is a good friend of mine – and the community dinner that his congregation hosts is highlighted in the book. 

We have, by and large, last the vision of the neighborhood as parish.  My own congregation, which moved from the city of Detroit over thirty years ago, draws its membership from a wide area and has struggled to find its place in the local community.  But we’re not alone.  To be a Slow Church, however, requires that we learn the benefits of being rooted in the community, to being a community presence. 

The book begins by laying out a theological vision for the church.  It is a theology that takes the long view.  It draws on the love and patience of God, and by patience they mean something like “long suffering.”  It stands, they suggest, in contrast to our culture’s cult of efficiency.  Their theological vision embraces the idea of divine collaboration with humanity in the pursuit of reconciliation.  This takes time.  The heart of their vision, they declare, “is a theology deeply rooted in the importance of the people of God to God’s mission in the world and in the rich joy of shalom that comes to all creation as we grow and flourish in the places to which we have been called” (p. 34).  

With this theological vision guiding their work, they lay out the book in three courses (remember that the metaphor is drawn from the slow food movement).  The first course is ethics, or an embodied faith, and focuses on terrior, that is – tasting and seeing.  As they put it – “you can’t franchise the kingdom of God.”  While there are aspects of the kingdom found everywhere, the kingdom takes on a different flavor depending on its location, just as wine reflects the place in which the grapes are grown.  There is much wisdom here, because we are continually bombarded with the message from the “church growth experts” who offer us one-size fits all programs that will grow our church.  Perhaps that is not the way to go.  From tasting and seeing, we move to stability – staying in one place, with loyalty to the community of faith and the community in which one lives.  As one who has moved numerous times in life, I wrestle with this part of the story.  Finally, they speak of patience, for building communities of trust takes time.

It is time to move to the second course, Ecology, which they understand to describe participating in the ministry of reconciliation.  This course begins with an outline of what reconciliation means – wholeness.  Being a Disciples of Christ pastor, this resonates with me, for we have envisioned ourselves as a faith community called to pursue wholeness in a fragmented world.  In their discussion of wholeness, I especially appreciate the fact that the address nationalism.  If reconciliation is the purpose of God, then that “leaves no room for nationalism” (p. 108).  It also undermines the idea that we can be faithful to our calling and embrace the homogeneous principle espoused by the Church Growth Movement.  To be faithful to Christ’s mission then the church must be open to all.  This movement will also involve a new vision of work.  Work is central to the human community, but our modern embrace of industrialization and mechanization has often led to soulless work.  It’s not that work has to be fun, but because labor is central to the human experience, it mustn’t suck life out of us.  If we are to talk about the importance of work, then we must also talk about the importance of Sabbath – the need to rest from our work so we have time to share life in community.  Sabbath is important because it demands that we recognize our dependence on God.  It is a moment to learn to trust.  Slow church requires Sabbath!

The third course, speaks of economy, which involves recognizing the abundance of God, and sharing equally in it.  In this third course, we begin by exploring what this idea of abundance means.  It means that due to God’s provisions we needn’t live with an attitude of scarcity.  Unfortunately, our capitalist economy is rooted in the idea that there is a scarcity of resources, and thus we must hoard and use whatever is present, unwilling to share with others, lest we not have enough.  Acknowledging abundance, however, leads to gratitude, and then to generosity and hospitality.  Community life depends on gratitude, for with gratitude comes joy.  Gratitude is present when we recognize the many gifts – including the people – to be found in our communities.  Of course, it takes time and conversation to discern these gifts.    Gratitude leads to hospitality, and hospitality is more than simply offering a nice meal (or coffee hour).  It is an attitude of openness to the other.  It is the attitude that allows one to welcome the stranger.  Remember the message of Matthew 25 – even as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.   

The book closes with a chapter on sharing meals together.  The purpose of this chapter is to remind us that conversations often take place over meals.  They don’t have to be fancy, but they become the foundation for building trust.  And that’s the point.  The value of moving to this Slow Church movement is to find ways of building communities where trust is present.  Why is this important?  Well look around.  It is said by many that one of the reasons why there is so much polarization on Capitol Hill is that no one socializes any more.  They don’t know each other.   Is this not true in the church?  And it’s not just true in big churches.  Even in small churches our circles of conversation can be extremely small.  But if we’re to move toward consensus decision making, then learning to have conversations that are open and trusting is important.  Indeed, very important because there are life and death issues at hand that need our attention, but if we don’t trust each other we’ll not be able to do this work. 

The authors have offered us a vision of the church that they claim isn’t a utopian one.  It’s not an unattainable goal.  It will take great effort.  It will take time.  But if we’ll slow down, be patient, have conversation, then the work of reconciliation that God in Christ is intent upon pursuing can begin to bind the wounds and build the relationships that are often broken.  And this is done for the glory of God who has reached out to us in Christ.

This book is a gift to the church.  It is thoughtfully written.  It is theologically engaged.  It is open to new visions.  It points us forward in a new direction.  You don’t have to feel guilt about stopping at McDonalds.  It has its place, I suppose (I go there on occasion), but there is more to food than fast food.  There is more to church than fast and efficient church.  There is a place for the Slow Church where community is built, lives are transformed, and God is encountered and glorified.  So, take and read and you will be blessed.  

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Wasting life?

We live in a society that values productivity.  We are becoming increasingly concerned about efficiency.  But is there a place for wastefulness in life?  I was reading through the sermons of Paul Tillich in preparing a homily for the wedding I'm doing this weekend.  And I came across this word.  Perhaps it will resonate with you.

The history of mankind is the history of men and women who wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so.  They did not fear the waste of themselves, of other men, of things in the service of a new creation.  They were justified, for they wasted all this out of the fullness of their hearts.  They wasted as God does in nature and history, in creation and salvation.  The monsters of nature to which Jahweh points in His answer to Job -- what are they but expressions of the divine abundance?  Luther's God, who acts heroically and without rules -- is He not the wasteful God who creates and destroys in order to create again?  Has not Protestantism lost a a great deal by losing the wasteful self-surrender of the saints and the mystics?  Are we not in danger of a religious and moral utilitarianism which always asks for the reasonable purpose -- the same question as that of the disciples in Bethany?  There is no creativity, divine or human, without the holy waste which comes out of the creative abundance of the heart and does not ask, "what use is this?"  [Paul Tillich, "Holy Waste," in The New Being, (Scribners, 1955), p. 48].
 To many in society the arts, music, even religion is wasteful.  It's not productive. It's not immediately relevant.  But without these gifts of God, are we not impoverished?  Is it possible that we are losing our ability to let loose the "creative abundance of the heart"?   Perhaps our fear of waste comes from our embrace of a theology or ideology of scarcity.  But does such a vision come from a God, whom Tillich describes as the "wasteful God"?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Giving Up, Giving Down -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

A consistent theme in most congregations is stewardship.  Most of us take an offering each week as part of worship.  We sing some sort of doxology.  We talk about the good gifts that God has given us, and thus return a portion for the work of God.  The funds collected goes to pay for the heat and the cooling, salaries for people like me, and ministries that include outreach into the community.  Martin Marty writes this week about a slight drop in giving levels among religious communities.  I had heard that this was happening -- perhaps as a result of the economic downturn.  The decline in worship attendance and church membership doesn't help.  What has gone up is giving to education, arts, and animals.  The first two likely due to foundation grants, whereas religious giving comes from individuals who participate in congregations.  I invite you to read along and offer your thoughts on the value accorded religious institutions..

Giving Up, Giving Down
Monday | June 23 2014
                                                                                                                Photo Credit: lisafx / Depositphotos
“Giving,” as in “Charitable Giving,” is “up” for three causes: “Arts and Humanities” (6.3%), “Education” (7.4%), and “Animals and Environment” (6%). But giving to “Religion” was down 1.6% from 2012 to 2013.

Good news for those who have positive views of religion was the notice that “the religious sector continues to collect a greater proportion of total charitable giving—31 percent—than any other” according to a “Giving USA” report (see “Sources,” below). Less good news is the notice of even a slight decline.

Responsible commentators know how difficult it is to get, define, and interpret statistics in these areas. Lauren Markoe for Religion News Service (RNS) quotes generalizing experts about the big picture: “Behind the sad state for religious groups, experts say, is American’s declining interest in religious institutions.”

No argument there. But Markoe balances this quote with comment from a specific expert, Rick Dunham, CEO of Dunham Company, who knows enough to remark that “many religiously oriented charities are often counted in other sectors, such as education and human services.” Further, giving is “shifting from houses of worship to religiously affiliated charities that are counted in other sectors.”

Extended families like mine “give” charitably through alumni associations of any number of church-related colleges and universities and, like to many others, give directly to “human services” organizations, which are profoundly inspired by “religious” motivations but which don’t show up on congregational or denominational giving reports.

As such needs grow and at a time when the need to give to build new churches or synagogues is less urgent than in the boom-years, people of faith have not deserted the cause even as some of their cohort have stopped going to worship.

The first twenty comments to the RNS story were almost all from anti-religious commentators, who are so often first on the scene with issues like this. Some declare themselves to be atheists, and bring religious passion to their anti-religious declarations.

They think that churches or synagogues or mosques, etc., should not be tax-exempt because they are simply marketers at best and scam artists at worst. They do not see religious organizations providing “education” of the kind they would approve, or “human services” at all. Churches, et cetera, are not going to engage in strategies or public relations moves which will win positive notice from such observers from a distance or through rear-view mirrors.

The larger public, however, evidently has some understanding of the positives effected by individuals gathered in groups devoted to common texts and themes and causes. What keeps that 31% share of the charitable giving is not simply that some people like to build buildings and know they have to heat or cool them. They know that in the vast majority of cases these congregations perform often otherwise-overlooked services in child-care, inspiring young people to engage in works of mercy, and mutual care of the aged, including by the aged, which make up large percentages of these “giving” gatherings. 

One hopes that they are open to learning from “down trends,” no matter what their cause, so that more of them can confess to the shortcomings of religious groups, and join other citizens in responding to what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of their nature.” And that they reject the themes which often inspire religious groups to engage in hateful dismissals of “the other” in a time when those “better angels” might still hover.


Markoe, Lauren. “Charitable giving to religious groups is down as philanthropy improves from the Great Recession.” Religion News Service, June 17, 2014.

Crary, David (AP). “Charitable giving surges for colleges, hospitals; flat for churches, social service groups.” US News & World Report, June 17, 2014.

Giving USA.

Photo Credit: lisafx / Depositphotos

To read previous issues of Sightings, visit
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

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.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Welcome Mat -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A

Matthew 10:40-42  New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
                Jesus sent out as disciples two by two – all twelve of them – on a missionary journey.  He sent them out with just the clothes on their backs.  No money in their belts.  No health insurance.  No lunches.  They were to preach the Good News to the Jewish community – not Gentiles or Samaritans.  As they went out on this journey they were to live off the land.  When they entered a community, they were to find a house that was worthy and stay there.  If they found a home to be unworthy – that is one that proved unwelcoming -- they were to rescind their blessing and move on.  Jesus let them know that not everyone would be welcoming.  After all, they were going out into the world like lambs among wolves.  The reading for this week concludes the story that begins in verse 1 of Matthew 10.  In this brief passage, Jesus declares that when people welcome the disciples, they are welcoming him.  They are his representatives.  To use an ecclesial term, they are “vicars” of Christ.  Throughout Matthew 10 Jesus speaks of the blessings that come from welcoming his representatives.  But here he connects their work with his own. 

                What then should we make of this passage today?  Obviously the original commission to preach to the Jewish community has long been expanded to include Samaritans and Gentiles.  Perhaps Matthew’s community was focused on ministry with the Jewish community, but that is not our primary calling today.   What is interesting here is the use of the word welcome in this passage.  It appears four times.  What does it mean to welcome another?  Churches will often think of themselves as friendly and welcoming places, but are they really?  Yes, they enjoy getting together with their friends, but what about the stranger?  The disciples were going out into the world as strangers, placing their own welfare in the hands of people who would rather keep the doors shut.

Then there’s the word about offering a cup of cold water to the “little ones.”  This is most likely not a reference to children.  Instead, it would refer to these evangelists whom Jesus sent out.  It is quite likely that in its original context the “least of these” in Matthew 25 also referred to Jesus’ representatives.  But we needn’t be too restrictive on how we read this today.  Giving the cup of cold water could be a blessing to many of Christ’s “little ones,” from the homeless to the evangelists. 

At the heart of the passage is the call to hospitality.  Hospitality has become, in our time, overly connected to the hotel and restaurant industry.  Churches might have a hospitality or fellowship team, but their job is to take care of the kitchen and organize meals for the church.  That’s okay, as far as it goes, but it goes deeper than making sure there is a nice coffee hour after church. 

In reading the book Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesuswritten by Chris Smith and John Pattison, I am reminded of the power of the meal.  We gather at the Lord’s Table to share in bread and cup in remembrance of Jesus, but we often forget that in its origins the Table fellowship was part of a larger meal.  Sharing meals together has the possibilities of building community and enlivening conversation.  One would assume that as these disciples made their way across the land, they would have shared meals with the people they stayed with.  It was here that they talked about Jesus and his ministry.  It was in the midst of the meal that they spoke of the realm of God.  The hosts become the hosted, and in the course of the meal and the conversation they receive blessing.

It is interesting how often this happens, if we’re willing to slow down and actually have a conversation – over a meal usually but not always.  We begin to talk about trivialities, but then as we become more comfortable, we go deeper, discussing important issues, including political ones, but in a different context – one of trust and civility.    

 So how do we lay out the welcome mat?  Yes, the focus in the passage is on being welcomed, but as we have become more stationary, perhaps we can put the shoe on the other foot.  Could it be that the ones welcomed will be a guest preacher?  Mission groups from outside the area?  I’m thinking here of Motown Mission and Gospel in Action Detroit, two organizations with which I am affiliated who welcome teams from outside the area to work in Detroit.  How do we provide them welcome?

          Moving deeper, how might the reference to the “little ones” spur our imaginations?  Who might these “little ones” be?  Well, it likely doesn’t refer in the original to children, but surely we can be more welcoming to children in our congregations.  There are the homeless and the ones living on the margins who stand in need of hope.  I learned the other night that about forty percent of homeless youth are LGBT, many of whom came out to families who turned them aside.  The little ones could be the migrant workers who pick the fruit and vegetables gracing our tables.  They could be the refugees who are fleeing war and violence in places like Iraq, Syria, and the Congo.  These little ones could be the thousands of children, traveling from Latin America to the United States border in search of safety and a better life.  How should we as a nation welcome these children who are now living in cramped facilities not designed for this purpose?   What would Jesus have us do?

                Perhaps the place to start is with the heart.  Hospitality begins with an attitude of openness to the other.  That is what it means to be a welcoming person.  It involves acceptance, but it is deeper than that.  It is an attitude that is formed by compassion and grace.  But more than that, it is an attitude of vulnerability to the other.   But if we open ourselves up to the other, then we will find blessing.  Yes, it’s risky.  But most blessings come with risk.

                What then does it mean for us as individuals and as congregations to lay out the welcome mat?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Adding Chairs to the Table

Hospitality is, so says John Pattison and Chris Smith, at the heart of what it means to be a Christian community.  In saying this,they don't mean that we should make sure we put out our best silver and china each week at coffee hour.  No, true hospitality is demonstrated through inclusion.  They turn on its head Jesus' parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:15-24.  In the parable a dinner host sends out invites.  Everyone sends their regrets, so the host sends out his servants to bring in as many people from the highways and byways to fill the seats -- so that if the original invitees reconsider there won't be room.  This sounds rather negative and exclusive.  But they offer this take, which I think is quite illuminating. 

Christians spend too much time "deciding" who can't be invited at the dinner party.  In contrast, we believe it's our responsibility and privilege as followers of Jesus to add chairs to the table, not take them away, almost compelling the Host to make more room as we eagerly spread the good news of God's abundant hospitality among our neighbors.  Jesus as Jesus frequented the meals and parties of his neighbors, we too should make it a priority to eat and relax often with our neighbors.  (Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus,, p. 197).
Hospitality is an act of inclusion.  The Lord's Table is often a place of theological exclusion.  It is also a place where boundaries are placed so that those not like us are kept out.  But the call of Jesus would seem to open more room at the Table.  

As the two authors not "what made the hospitality of the early Christian church distinct in its time was that it went out of its way to include people who couldn't possibly reciprocate" (p. 196).  Now, that's true hospitality!  So, who is it that we need to add a chair for?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Alive for God in Christ -- Sermon for Pentecost 2A

Romans 6:1b-11

On the day of Pentecost, the people gathered in the streets of Jerusalem asked Peter what they needed to do to be saved.  Peter told them that if they would repent and be baptized, they would receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38).  That passage of scripture has been a foundation stone for Disciples life from the beginnings of the movement.  In some circles, just giving the biblical reference Acts 2:38 is like saying John 3:16.  Everybody knows what it says.

Baptism comes up again in Romans 6, where Paul is in the middle of a conversation about sin, law, grace, and the Christian life.  In Romans 5, Paul wrote that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”  It seems that there were some Christians in Rome, who believed that grace was an eternal get out of jail free card, so why not throw caution to the wind.  After all, God will forgive.  There’s a name for this belief – “antinomianism.”   That’s Greek for “no law.”  

While we value freedom, after all the 4th of July is on the horizon, freedom needs to be accompanied by responsibility.  As many college freshmen learn, too much freedom, too soon, can create problems. College life offers lots of  temptations – especially if you get into a frat – or so they say.  I don’t know this first hand, because I went to a Christian college.  There were rules to follow, and we broke some of them.  Some of my friends, some of whom are now pastors of note, even pushed the boundaries of acceptable behavior, but that was nothing compared to what went on across the street at the University of Oregon!   

In preaching a gospel of grace, Paul opened the door of freedom, but he also spoke of responsibility.  So, when it comes to the question whether we should “continue in sin in order that grace may abound,” Paul offers a very strong “NO!”

   Getting back to baptism, what does it mean?  What is its purpose?  It is a sign, but what is it a sign of?

We Disciples have historically practiced “believers’ baptism.”  We have looked to Acts 2:38 for guidance.  Repentance precedes baptism, and with baptism comes forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  We immerse because that’s what baptism means in Greek.  Founder Alexander Campbell put it this way:
Therefore, none but those who have first believed the testimony of God and have repented of their sins, and that have been intelligently immersed into his death, have the full and explicit testimony of God, assuring them of pardon.  [Alexander Campbell, Christian System, in Royal Humbert, ed., Compend of Alexander Campbell's Theology, (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1961), 195-96.]
Today Disciples practice “open membership,” which means that we recognize that what happens in other faith communities when they baptize carries the same meaning as our practice. In doing this we recognize that these other faith communities are fully Christian.

Turning to Romans 6, we’re reminded that when we’re baptized we’re not just going through an initiation ceremony for a church, we’re identifying ourselves with Christ.  In traditions that practice infant baptism, promises made by parents are confirmed by those who wish to identify themselves fully with Jesus and his community. 

Paul teaches that in baptism we identify ourselves with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  This is illustrated in the act of being immersed in the waters of baptism.  You might say that when you’re immersed, it’s as if you’re being drowned, especially if the preacher wants to make sure that every hair on your head is completely wet.  This act of being buried allows us to identify with the cross of Jesus.  By identifying with his death we experience dying to the old life.  At death, you’re free from all debts and obligations.  Creditors can go after family, but not you. 

Of course, we don’t stay buried in the water.  We rise from the waters of baptism, and as we do, we identify with the resurrection of Jesus.  So, as theologian Karl Barth puts it: “The man who emerges from the water is not the same man who entered it.  One man dies and another is born” (Epistle to the Romans, (Oxford, 1968, p. 193).  We see something of this image in the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of being born again.  To put it in economic terms, baptism is a bit like bankruptcy.  When you go through bankruptcy, you get to start over.  Now, the key, moving forward is not to get yourself in that predicament again!

According to Paul, sin defines the old life, and baptism serves to break its hold on our lives.  But what is sin?  Well, it’s more than simply doing the wrong thing.  It’s more than breaking the rules.  No, sin is more basic than that.  Sin is our human tendency to mess things up.  It has to do with the orientation of our lives.  Paul wants us to understand that when we’re baptized, we change the orientation of our lives.  From now on, we live in Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us.   

While I’m not a big believer in the idea that people die, go to heaven, and come back to life, I do believe that people can have mystical experiences during life and death moments that change their lives.  There are too many death bed stories of people, seemingly having died and then having a life altering experience, which  in their mind is the gift of a second chance in life.  Getting that second chance, they want to live life differently.    
Although it’s not quite the same situation, isn’t that the point of the story of Ebenezer Scrooge?  Three ghosts take him on a journey that allows him to look at his life, and how he has interacted with others.  He also sees his future – the future of a lonely and despised individual.  Facing his own grave, he asks whether these are shadows that must occur, or whether he can change his future.  Well, you know the rest of the story – he decides to make the changes, and it’s said of him that no one celebrated Christmas quite like him.  
And so it is with baptism.  In Christ, we choose to identify ourselves with his life, his death, and his resurrection.  It is the means by which we signal our desire to follow Jesus, so that even if no one goes with us, we won’t turn back.  The cross lies before us, the world behind us. 

Now Paul knows human nature.  He knows that baptism doesn’t make us instantly holy.  He knows that it is a lifelong process, with perfection waiting for another lifetime.  But, in baptism, as we identify ourselves with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we allow him to define our identity.  

Baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime sacramental event.  We come to the Lord’s Table weekly, but baptism normally happens just once.  But, every day we experience spiritually a baptismal moment.   Because we continually make decisions that aren’t in sync with the desires of God, even after we’re baptized, we experience spiritually the washing of the Spirit and we start over with God.  We can do this because God’s grace and unconditional love makes it possible.  It’s just – we shouldn’t take this love and grace for granted.   Baptism needs to lead to a change of life, or it is simply a meaningless ritual.    

There’s another image that can help us make sense of our baptisms.  The Exodus image stands behind the conversation here in Romans 6, and Paul brings it out explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10.  So, even as the people of Israel walked through the sea and came out on the other side, so do we.  And even as the waters of the sea returned to their original location, in baptism there is no going back.  Whatever the enticements of Egypt, going back means a return to slavery.  Water is the dividing line, separating slavery from the promised land.  

As you know, the journey to the promised land wasn’t easy.  The people wandered around the desert for forty years, because they couldn’t let go of the past.  The generation that crossed the sea didn’t get to walk across the Jordan.  That belonged to a new generation that didn’t know Egypt.

In baptism, however, we walk through the sea and we cross through the river into the land of promise.  There we find God’s abundance.  Yes, when we cross the sea we discover the fullness of grace, which covers our continuing relapses.  Still, baptism has changed our orientation.  Our allegiance belongs to Jesus.  So, shall we sin so that grace might abound?  No – let us walk in newness of life, letting Jesus set the agenda. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
June 22, 2014
Pentecost 2A