Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living the Faith -- A Sermon for Pentecost 12A

Romans 12:9-21

Sometimes you come across a passage of Scripture that could take several months of sermons to explore.  This is true of today’s reading.  With sentences coming at us in rapid-fire fashion, it demands a great degree of reflection.  Since I’m not planning an extended series at this moment, I will try to refrain from dwelling too long in every nook and cranny of Paul’s message.  

Each statement is an imperative sentence that speaks to what it means to live the Christian life.  It’s fitting that this reading comes on Labor Day Weekend, because it will take a lot of work to fulfill Paul’s expectations.  

The key to this passage is the call to “let love be genuine” (vs. 9).  Everything that follows is an expression of genuine love.  It’s not romantic love.  It’s not just friendship.  It’s Agape love.  When it comes to defining love, I’ve been turning to theologian Tom Oord for help.  His basic definition goes like this:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology p. 17].
When it comes to the agape form of love, he defines it as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.”  This means, do what is good for the other, “in spite of evil previously inflicted” (p. 56).   This is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Labor Day and the realities of Labor

It is Labor Day Weekend, a time to stop and remember the value of work and the often problematic aspects of labor.  Being a member of the white collar community, it is easy for me to forget what it means to truly labor, to submit one's body and mind to often dangerous and mind numbing work in factories and fields.  We live at a time when labor unions are in decline and the manufacturing sector is in decline as well in America.  We benefit (Americans that is) from cheap goods imported from other lands where labor practices are often unchecked, meaning that the practices mirror those in America in the 19th century and early 20th.

With this in mind, and as I was thinking about what to share on this Saturday of Labor Day, my mind went to the early Reinhold Niebuhr, who served as a pastor in Detroit during the early days of the Auto boom.  In a posting from 1925 in his book of reflections on his ministry in Detroit -- Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic -- he writes of a visit of clergy to an auto factory:   
The foundry interested me particularly. The heat was terrific. The men seemed weary. Here manual labor is a drudgery and toil is slavery. The men cannot possibly find any satisfaction in their work. They simply work to make a living. Their sweat and their dull pain are part of the price paid for the fine cars we all run.
The workers in this factory worked to live -- they needed the wages, even if the work was unfufilling and even dangerous.  

He goes on to speak of our complicity in this reality -- a complicity we often put into the backs of our minds.  As we observe Labor Day, let us consider these words from one of America's most insightful theologians that emerged out of the context of ministry:

We are all responsible. We all want the things which the factory produces and none of us is sensitive enough to care how much in human values the efficiency of the modern factory costs. Beside the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how futile are all our homiletical spoutings! The church is undoubtedly cultivating graces and preserving spiritual amenities in the more protected areas of society. But it isn’t changing the essential facts of modern industrial civilization by a hair’s breadth. It isn’t even thinking about them. 
The morality of the church is anachronistic. Will it ever develop a moral insight and courage sufficient to cope with the real problems of modern society? If it does it will require generations of effort and not a few martyrdoms. We ministers maintain our pride and self-respect and our sense of importance only through a vast and inclusive ignorance. If we knew the world in which we live a little better we would perish in shame or be overcome by a sense of futility.   [Niebuhr,, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic (Kindle Locations 641-648). Read Books Ltd.. Kindle Edition.]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Sex and Marriage Go Together -- Part 2

Continued from previous day's post.

Our focus here is on the role of sexuality within marriage, and while the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) can be interpreted allegorically for a spiritual purpose -- speaking of the love humans share with God -- that is not the original intent of these songs.  They celebrate human love that is expressed physically.
The woman speaks to her beloved:   “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”  She celebrates the mutual attraction that binds the couple together.  Seemingly out of step with the culture, the woman also takes the lead in the relationship.  She invites her beloved to walk through the fields and the gardens, where life is lush and fruitful, to a place where she says “There I will give you my love” (Song of Songs 7:10-12).  The sharing of love here is physical.  It is, to use a Greek term, eros.   She is going to show him a good time.  But this isn’t just a momentary fling.  It is much more than that. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sex and Marriage Go Together -- Part 1

In the first creation story, after God created humankind, both male and female, God told them to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28).   This command implies sex.  In the second creation story we are told that “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  It is possible, though not necessary, that this statement implies a sexual relationship.  It could also suggest the merging of families. 

From a strictly biological perspective, sex is a normal part of human experience.  It is the means by which humans procreate.  But sex isn’t just about procreation.  Sex can also be about pleasure.  That too might have an evolutionary element to it.  If it were not a pleasurable experience, then it’s likely that humans would forgo it.  That would lead to the demise of the human race. 

From a strictly biological perspective, one needn’t be married to have sex or to procreate.  Many have sex outside of marriage, even if there are taboos against it.  It’s not just in recent years that people of engaged in sex outside marriage.  It’s only that some of the rules of loosened.  In many ways, the rules generally only applied to women.  Rarely will you see a man charged with adultery.  But as we’ve seen in the ancient world, women were seen as property.  A woman who had sex outside of a prescribed relationship was considered spoiled property.  We don’t think of women as property anymore – or at least I hope we don’t, despite quaint customs like a father giving away the bride to her new husband.   

Although we may have moved beyond the idea that women are property, there are valid reasons for setting certain boundaries for sexual behavior.  In the ancient world the relationship between husband and wife was generally unequal.  The same was true, ironically, in the way same-relationships were practiced in Greek and Roman culture. 

The question of sexuality and spirituality has long been a matter of debate.  There have been in some religions fertility cults, in which sex was used as a talisman to encourage the gods to bless the land with fertility – not just children, but the flocks and the crops as well.  Many of the prohibitions in the Hebrew Bible, which were later brought into the New Testament, are responses to these fertility cults.  At the same time, there have been faith groups that have believed that sexuality and spirituality were incompatible.  Sex was considered too carnal and earthy.  Therefore a spiritual person would want to avoid such corruption.  Such views, often Gnostic in their roots, have led to the development of monastic celibacy.  It appears that such a view had permeated a rather conflicted Corinthian Church.  Certain members of the community had gotten it in their head that true spirituality required sexual abstinence (1Corinthians 7:5).  This was true, they believed, whether one was married or not.  However, some of the members had begun to act unbecomingly –   had problems with sex.  Some of the church members were acting in ways that were unbecoming to the community, by seeking sexual satisfaction outside of the marriage relationship (perhaps by visiting local prostitutes).    

Our understandings of sexuality, even if we embrace sex as part of marriage, have often been colored by this view of sex as being carnal (and even dirty).  Men are supposed to like it, women don’t.  A vision of sexuality that has influenced many though the years is exemplified in a prayer of St. Augustine. 

Truly it is by continence that we are made as one and regain that unity of self which we lost by falling apart in the search for a variety of pleasures.  For a man loves you so much the less if, besides you, he also loves something else which he does not love for your sake.  O Love ever burning, never quenched!  O Charity, my God, set me on fire with your love!  You command me to be continent.  Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will![1]   

It is, therefore, not surprising that a portion of scripture that celebrates sexuality, like Song of Songs, is read allegorically so that Christians might experience its spiritual message and not be brought down to the carnal level.

                It has normally been assumed that marriage involves a sexual relationship.  We talk about a marriage being consummated.  In some traditions an unconsummated marriage can be annulled – that is, according to this understanding, the marriage never occurred.  It’s not the wedding ceremony or the license; it’s the sexual relationship that defines marriage.  Remember the story of Jacob and Leah.  He might protest that the woman he slept with was not the woman he intended to marry (Rachel), but since he slept with Leah, she was his wife (Genesis 29).  One of the reasons for this is that a woman considered property, and if she had slept with a man, not her husband, or was rejected by a prospective husband, then she would be spoiled or damaged goods.   A man could sow his seeds with relative impunity, but once a woman had been with a man she essentially belonged to him.  We no longer, at least in western culture view women in the same way (it is hoped).  Though there are still elements of this understanding present in subtle forms.  Men are still freer to be sexually active outside marriage than are women. 

[1] Augustine, Confessions (Penguin Classics), R.S. Pine-Coffin, trans., (New York:  Penguin Books, 1961), p. 233.    

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Time to be Arrested? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A

Matthew16:21-28-- New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? 

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”


            Peter had just made the Good Confession.  He had declared Jesus to be the Messiah and the Son of the Living God.  In essence he was saying:  “You’re the one we’ve been waiting for.”  You’re it; you’re our last hope.  I’ve heard something like that before.  I had just been called to serve as the pastor of a small, struggling congregation (not the one I currently serve).  I was told by one of the members– you’re our last hope.  I should have seen it coming – five years later we were still struggling (though we had as much money in the bank, if not more, than when I arrived) and a group in the church decided it was time to change pastors.  Since we were essentially in the same place as we were when I started there, perhaps there was still time to find another savior for the church.  Alas, that congregation is much smaller today than when I left, but it’s still alive.  Congregations are like that – they can hang on for years, clinging to life, while pastors come and go. As for Jesus’ contemporaries, they too had seen plenty of messiahs come and go.  These figures made promises, gathered followers, and subsequently ended up dead or dispersed, while their vision of hope perished with them. 

Monday, August 25, 2014


THE MAINLINER'S SURVIVAL GUIDE TO THE POST-DENOMINATIONAL WORLD.  By Derek Penwell.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2014.  188 pages.

The Mainline Protestant Church has been in decline for much of my life. The churches that make up the Mainline reached their height of influence and numbers within a few years of my birth at the end of the 1950s. Once full churches are either closing or surviving with a scattering of aging members who can remember better days.  Yes, there are a few congregations bucking the trend, but overall, the Mainline has moved to the sidelines.  At least that’s the interpretation of many observers.   Going back a generation we were told that the reason why these churches were struggling was their liberal views – politically and theologically.  Ironically, today demographers are discovering that younger adults are ignoring the church because of its perceived conservatism. That could bode well for Mainliners, except that there’s little social pressure to encourage those who are disinclined to embrace conservative churches to embrace old line Protestant churches that have a more open theology and social views.  Those of us still in the church might want to throw up our hands and walk away, but at least some of us believe that we have a message that can be a blessing to the world, we just have to figure out how to get the attention of an often distracted audience.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Call to Representative Ministry -- Reflection on Ordination

Note:  Today (Sunday), Central Woodward Christian Church, the congregation which I serve as pastor, will host the ordination of one of its' own.  In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it is the Regional body that ordains on behalf of the entire church.  The local congregation, however, recommends the candidate to the Region, and often hosts the service.  Thus, I will serve as the host pastor for the ordination.  This is an exciting day for the congregation.  With that in mind I am posting excerpts from my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening that focus on the question of ordained ministry.  This excerpt focuses on ordained ministry as representative ministry.  

One way to make sense of ordained ministry while affirming the premise that all baptized Christians are priests of God is to see pastoral ministry defined as representative ministry. The pastor would embody for the congregation the call that all members share in. Therefore, whether standing at the pulpit or the Table, the ordained minister isn’t just a representative of God to the people, but is also a representative of the people before God.  [Donald Messer, Images of Christian Ministry, (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1989), 64.]

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Biblical Call to Ordained Ministry

Note:  Tomorrow (Sunday), Central Woodward Christian Church, the congregation which I serve as pastor, will host the ordination of one of its' own.  In the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it is the Regional body that ordains on behalf of the entire church.  The local congregation, however, recommends the candidate to the Region, and often hosts the service.  Thus, I will serve as the host pastor for the ordination.  This is an exciting day for the congregation.  With that in mind I am going to be posting excerpts from my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening today and tomorrow that focus on the question of ordained ministry.  This excerpt focuses on biblical visions of ordination.

Pushing the conversation further, we need to remember that there isn’t a New Testament doctrine that envisions today’s professional minister. The New Testament offers a variety of structures, some more formal than others, with Corinth and Ephesus offering contrasting examples. The Corinthians seem to have had a fairly informal structure, one guided by spiritually discerning elders (therefore it’s not surprising that we find the bulk of teaching on spiritual gifts in a letter written to this church). The Ephesians letter, likely written a generation later, suggests a much more formalized structure that includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph. 4:11). In a letter that may date even later than Ephesians, 1 Timothy envisions a church led by bishops (elders), presbyters, and deacons. In this discussion of presbyters (elders/pastors) and episcope (bishops/elders), the Pastorals flesh out a relationship between the church and its leaders that looks much different from the much earlier Corinthian church.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING (Brian McLaren) -- Review:

WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation.  By Brian D. McLaren.  New York:  Jericho Books, 2014.  Xxii + 282 pages.

                The Christian community is in a period of transition.  We don’t know what the future holds.  Certain strands of theology suggest that God has already planned out everything.  We may not know the intricacies of the plan, but God does.  Such a vision can lead to a degree of passivity.  What will happen, will happen.  There are others, however, who believe that future is much more open.  They believe that we have a role to play in that future (I count myself among this group).  The question is – how do we prepare ourselves for this journey into the future?  We might also ask about the resources available to us so we can work with God in creating this future.   One of these resources is the Bible.  The various lectionaries have offered the community ways in which to draw upon this resource in a somewhat organized manner.  Brian McLaren has entered into this conversation with his own version of a lectionary focused on the premise that God is concerned about “aliveness.”

                McLaren is a well-known speaker, author, provocateur, Emergent leader, and former pastor.  Believing that we create the path for our journey as we walk it, McLaren has laid out a fifty-two week journey through the biblical story, from Creation to the Consummation (Revelation).  It is a journey that we take with God that will last for a life time – that is, it never ends – until the consummation of all things.  Expressing a Process or Openness vision of God, McLaren suggests that "we don't need to wait passively for history to happen to us. We can become protagonists in our own story. We can make the road by walking'(p. xi). 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Marriage and the Problem of Brokenness -- Part 2

            In his words about divorce, Jesus takes us beyond what the law allows, to what we might call the ideal for marriage.  Looking back to Genesis 1 and 2, Jesus says, "from the beginning of creation `God made them male and female'."  And, "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."   But what does it mean to be one flesh?  Well, it could mean that the man and woman are exactly alike, duplicates of each other, or it could mean that one spouse controls the marriage.  These are possible definitions, but there is no mutuality in them.  Then there is the popular fifty-fifty marriage, but as Walter Wangerin points out, when we think of ourselves as fractions we will discover that "these two halves don't fit perfectly together."  There is, however, another possible definition.  Wangerin suggests that in a marriage, there are three complete beings:  the couple and the relationship between them.  Both partners serve this relationship, benefit from it, and yet neither of them is exactly like the relationship.  
This relationship is itself very much like a living being--like a baby born from you both.  It has its own character.  It enters existence infantile, when you speak vows to one another.  It comes cuddly and lovely, but very weak and in need of care and nourishment.  As time goes on, as this baby-relationship grows up, it becomes stronger and stronger until it serves and protects you in return.  This `being', this living thing, this relationship which needs you both (the whole of each of you), but which is not you (it is not the two of you added together, because it is distinct from either one of you)-- that is your "oneness."[1]
This relationship is God's gift to us, and this is why Jesus says to us:  "What God has joined together, let no one separate."  Don't let your brokenness destroy this union.  Instead, nourish your relationship, respect it, and invest yourself in it.  Marriage brings with it great blessings, but the relationship between the human partners is always a fragile thing because we come into it as two broken people. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Marriage and the Problem of Brokenness -- Part 1

            The need for companionship and community is deeply rooted in our human nature.  It is, one might say, a reflection of being created in the image of God.  In the first creation story, a poetic statement of God’s creative activity, we hear God say to God’s self:  “Let us create humankind in our image,” and so “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).  The use of the plural here invites speculation, and theological speculation isn’t the point here – but it does invite us to consider within the oneness that is God there is a plurality of existence – a community within the one.  The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is one way of expressing this sense of plurality within the oneness of God.

            The Genesis story begins with two stories of God’s creation of humanity as male and female.  These stories speak of community and companionship.  But then the story takes a dark turn.  In Genesis 3, brokenness enters the picture.  The relationship between God and humanity is damaged, but so is the relationship between human beings.   The truth that is embedded in this story is that all human relationships are affected by this sense of brokenness or fragmentation.  This includes the most intimate of human relationships – that of marriage and family.  We can even destroy the things meant to bring us joy and happiness.  Yes, we are hardhearted people who betray those we love most. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Messianic Complex? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11A

Matthew 16:13-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Who is Jesus?  That is a question than many have asked down through the centuries.  If you call yourself a Christian, then you likely have tried to answer the question.  For some he is a prophet.  For others he is a spiritual guide.  For still others he is personal savior.  Some call him Lord.  Others look to him as a liberator. 

Because Jesus was a religious figure who is revered by at least some as being divine origin, a distinction is sometimes made between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history.  While some Christians see the two as being one and the same, others do not.  When it comes to answering the question of who is Jesus of Nazareth, the figure of history, there have been many quests.   Most of them have ended up with the questors, as Albert Schweitzer suggested, seeing a reflection of themselves in Jesus.   We want Jesus on our side, and so he ends up looking like us.  For Christians of European descent, we have become accustomed to seeing a blue-eyed blond Jesus, a Jesus who looks very European and not very Jewish.   We have remade Jesus in our own physical image, but we also tend to remake Jesus ideologically.  Therefore, there is a liberal Jesus and a conservative Jesus.  There is a radical Jesus and a reactionary Jesus.  Yes, who is Jesus? 

Monday, August 18, 2014

No Marriage in Heaven? Oh My!

            There is a common hope among family members that when they die that they will be reunited with their loved ones – including their spouses.  Some faith traditions, like Mormonism, make this idea a centerpiece of their faith.  Marriages performed in a Mormon Temple are consecrated not only for the present life, but also for the next life.  While mainstream Christianity doesn’t make that belief quite as explicit as does Mormonism, the expectation for many is that family life will continue on in the next life much as it does in the present life.  While this view is common, is this the way Jesus understands marriage and family?  In other words, did Jesus preach a message of family values – at least in a way that many modern American Christians understand that concept?

            Throughout this study we have been wrestling with what the Bible has to say about marriage.  One thing that is clear is that the Bible doesn’t contain one continuous understanding from beginning to end.  Therefore, while there are clear differences between that age and this age, there are important present within the biblical story itself. 

            This difference is seen expressed in a conversation between Jesus and a group of Sadducees.  While the central issue here isn’t marriage, but the resurrection, the conversation does raise questions about how Jesus understood marriage and family.  The Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the resurrection, sought to trap Jesus with a question about the ancient Jewish practice of levirate marriage.  They hoped to point out the ridiculousness of resurrection thinking by asking to whom a man was married, if he participated in a levirate marriage.   

In ancient Judaism, which lacked a developed sense of the afterlife, one’s legacy was to be found in one’s progeny (children).  Think of the promise made to Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants by way of Isaac, the nations would be blessed.  Many families, even today, are concerned about passing on the family name.  It’s one of the reasons why many families prize having a son.  In American culture it has been the tradition that the wife would take on the husband’s name, so that their children would continue carrying on the patrilineal line from one generation to another. 

With levirate marriage, if a man dies, leaving a widow, but no child (hopefully a male child), then a kinsman, usually a younger brother is to marry the widow. This kinsman hopefully will father a child in the name of the now deceased brother, so that the family line can continue.  One of the best examples of this practice is found in the story of Tamar. 

            In this story from Genesis, Judah, the son of Jacob and Leah, marries a Canaanite woman named Shua.  In time this couple has several sons, the oldest being Er.  Judah obtained for Er a wife named Tamar.  Unfortunately he dies – more specifically God kills him because of his wickedness -- leaving Tamar without a husband and without a child to carry on the family name.  Wanting to make sure that the family line continued, Judah sent his second son, Onan, to marry Tamar.  But he too was wicked.  As Genesis puts it, “since Onan knew that the offspring would not be his, he spilled his semen on the ground whenever he went into his brother’s wife, so that he would not give offspring to his brother.”  This displeased God, and he dies.  Since the third son was yet too young to be given in marriage to Tamar, Judah tells her to wait till he’s grown up.  She did for awhile, but when Judah failed to offer her the third son (apparently Judah had begun to see a pattern) and after her mother-in-law died, Tamar decided that she would entrap Judah by playing the prostitute.  In the course of time, Tamar became pregnant with Judah’s child.  Actually she gives birth to twins.  After being confronted by her father in law with her supposed adultery, she proves that Judah is the father of the twins – Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38).  By the way Perez is an ancestor of David and Jesus.  With this, Judah accepts the children as his own. 

            There is another matter this story reminds us of.  Men were not, normally, accused of adultery.  It was only women.  A man could, as Judah did, engage in extra-marital behavior without much penalty.  A woman, on the other hand, since she was considered property had to remain chaste, except in the context of marriage.    

            With this background we can hear the question posed by the Sadducees to Jesus.  They offer a hypothetical situation.  Suppose there are seven brothers, none of whom are successful in their attempt to provide a child – they’ve failed to leave a legacy.  So, they ask Jesus – well then if there is a resurrection, and a woman has had seven husbands, none of whom could provide a child, then who would she belong to in the afterlife?  Note here that the question has to do with ownership of the woman.     
            The Sadducees want to see what kind of a biblical interpreter Jesus is.  Is he a good traditionalist like them or is he a liberal like the Pharisees?  To them, the idea of levirate marriage served as a good example of why the idea of the resurrection is really a silly notion.  In their reading of Scripture there is no resurrection, so the right answer would be that none of them would be her husband since none of them would experience an afterlife.  Instead of answering the way they expected, Jesus simply turns the tables on them by suggesting that marriage is really not that important in the long scheme of things.  Jesus resolves the dilemma by proclaiming that their example of levirate marriage is irrelevant, since in the new realm there is no need for marriage.  That’s because there will be no need for procreation.  Of course, this may mean that there won’t be any heavenly family reunions either. 

Why is that?  Well, marriage, family, procreation – as we see with levirate marriage – has a lot to do with security.  Even in the Genesis 2 story, which I believe focuses on the need for companionship, is about security.  In the new realm of God, however, security is to be found in God and not one’s mate or one’s progeny.  Remember that for Jesus, one’s brothers and sisters, and even mother (remember that for Jesus and his context, God is one’s Father), is to be found in the community of faith.  Perhaps one reason why the Sadducees, as members of a wealthy sector of society, did not find the idea of resurrection to be compelling is that they found sufficient security in this life, and therefore needed no promise of more to come in the next life.  They took to heart the promise that wealth was a sign of blessing, and as persons of wealth they had sufficient blessings.     

While marriage isn’t the focus of the passage, it does raise an important set of questions relating to the ultimate value of marriage and family.  This is an important question for churches, which tend to place high value on families, often to the exclusion of those who are single. 

Due to the division of roles and the limitations placed on women in ancient societies, marriage and family was the key to survival.  Levirite marriage not only provided a legacy, it provided security to a woman who had been completely dependent for her survival on her husband.  Without any social safety net, she was extremely vulnerable unless there was family – either a husband or a child.  This may be one reason why Laban made sure that Jacob married Leah before offering he offered Jacob Rachel in marriage.  If Rachel was married first, that would have placed a mark against Leah’s marriagability (Genesis 29).  In the case of the levirate system, a widow became the wife (and thus the property) of the one who claimed her. Consider the story of Ruth and Naomi.  In marrying Boaz, her nearest kinsman willing to claim her as his wife, Ruth provided a future for herself and for Naomi.  In producing a child, Naomi’s line continued through Boaz. 

The woman in the Gospel story, however, ends up being married seven times but never has a child.  Considering that barrenness was considered a curse, then this woman’s failure to bear a son meant that she was a burden to the six younger brothers who likewise were considered failures in their duty to the eldest brother.  While the Sadducees had no need for resurrection, perhaps the promise of resurrection would have been for the woman in the story a sign of justice and freedom.  Not only would she no longer be a burden to another, but she would no longer be the property of another. 

As one who has been married for more than three decades, I would say that by and large marriage is something good and valuable.  In many ways the modern understanding of marriage as a partnership of equals is a significant improvement on what was present in the first century and before.  Women are no longer – in Western society – the property of her husband (or her father).  A woman can chose her destiny – whether she wants to be married, whether she wants to work, whether she wants to have children.  This not only frees women from earlier burdens, it frees men as well.  They have choices.  They can, if they have children, choose to stay home and care for the children, while the spouse (male or female) works outside the home.  But marriage is not ultimate.  It’s not the only way in which humans can find fulfillment.  And as Jesus reminds us – there is no marriage in heaven.  Whatever the after-life looks like, our current patterns of family life, including marriage, do not exist.  This would seem to go the same for gay or straight couples.

Another Chapter in formation of Marriage Study Guide 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jesus’ Conversion -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A

21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
                Ethnocentrism and religious exclusivism are symptomatic of the human condition.  Take American Exceptionalism as an example.  If the President of the United States doesn’t declare America to be the greatest nation in the world, he (or eventually she) will be roundly criticized.  Charges of being un-American might be lodged.  Consider the flap over then Senator Obama’s lack of an American flag pin on his suit lapel during his presidential campaign.  What is true of Americans is true of other nations and ethnicities as well.  But surely Jesus rose above such human tendencies?  Surely his vision of humanity was open to all people – and as we like to say in my circles, “all means all.”

Ferguson, Race, Sin, and White America -- Reflection

Surely he has borne our infirmities    and carried our diseases;yet we accounted him stricken,    struck down by God, and afflicted.But he was wounded for our transgressions,    crushed for our iniquities;upon him was the punishment that made us whole,    and by his bruises we are healed.All we like sheep have gone astray;    we have all turned to our own way,and the Lord has laid on him    the iniquity of us all.Isaiah 53:4-6 (NRSV)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

BEING CHRISTIAN: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer -- Review

BEING CHRISTIAN: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.  By Rowan Williams.  Grand Rapids:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.  Viii + 84 pages.

                What does it mean to be a Christian?  There may be as many answers to that question as there are Christians.  In fact, many outside the Christian community may want to weigh in as well.  Suffice it to say that there is no one answer to the question.  Any attempt at answering the question will have a degree of personal spin added to it.  There are, however, persons of intellect and thoughtfulness that can serve as guides to exploring the faith we call Christian.  Some of these persons have written long and involved tomes, books that require much concentration and time to absorb.  Others have chosen to go a different route.  They have offered up brief responses, but responses that can serve us all quite well.  Among those attempting to do this is Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. 

Rowan Williams presided over the Anglican Communion – a sprawling confederation of nation churches or provinces that spans the globe – at a time of great change.  While the old heartland of the communion (Great Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia) have seen the churches in those lands go into decline, in the developing world the Anglican church is on the rise.  The churches in former colonies have begun to exert their influence, and that has proven difficult, especially when it comes to social issues like homosexuality.  Williams struggled with this responsibility, but he did so with calmness and a deep theological base.  Now the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, Rowan Williams has written a brief exposition of the Christian faith, focusing our attention on four essentials: Baptism, the Bible, the Eucharist, and Prayer.  The four chapters are based on talks given at Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

THE BIBLE’S YES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: An Evangelical’s Change of Heart (Mark Achtemeier) -- Review.

THE BIBLE'S YES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE: An Evangelical's Change of Heart.   By Mark Achtemeier.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xv + 137 pages.

While there is still considerable resistance to marriage equality, especially among the religious communities, there is a growing sense within society and even in many parts of the Christian community that the traditional arguments against same-sex marriage are inadequate and should be abandoned.  An increasing number of those who have changed or are changing their minds are, by their own self-definition, evangelicals.  The question that most evangelicals wrestle with concerns the need to reconcile their openness with what they read in the Bible.  Encounters with gay and lesbian Christians may have forced a re-examination of the Bible; even as many did earlier with women’s roles in the church or slavery, but what is it that they find? 

All parties agree that there fairly explicitly texts that prohibit at least some kinds of same-gender relationships, but do these texts speak to the modern context?  In addition, must one choose between a stricter interpretation of the Bible and a growing sense that one should embrace one’s LGBT brothers and sisters? 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Vacation, blogging, and a few pictures

I will admit it, I am a blogging addict.  I got the bug to blog daily.  I even pre-load "stuff" to fill the gaps.  But, you know, sometimes you just have to take it easy -- a Sabbath of sorts.  If you go back a few days you'll find a series of posts with excerpts from my book on spiritual gifts --Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013).  Speaking with due modesty, I do think this is a book worth reading -- and deserving wider readership.  So, click on the link, buy the book, read it, and let me know what you think!!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Love Wins -- A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10A

Love Wins?

           Not long ago there was a great disturbance in the Christian community.   It began when the trailer for a new book by Rob Bell was released.  A debate arose as to whether the author was an unversalist.  After all, he did raise the question – how do we know for sure that Gandhi is in hell.  There were those who bid him farewell from their ecclesial ranks, while others embraced him for the first time.  It’s likely that partisans on both sides of the debate misread the book, but the debate did raise an important issue.  What is the nature of God’s love?  Is it exclusive and conditional is it inclusive and unconditional?  For much of Christian history, perhaps of human history, our theological voices have assumed some form of exclusivity, and we have hoped that we are on the inside of the circle and not on the outside.  Another reason for our embrace of exclusivity, or a sense of chosenness, is that it gives us a sense of superiority over the other.  In other words, “my God’s bigger and better than your God.”  But, what if in the end God’s love wins?   What if God sends the rains on the just and the unjust and seeks to reconcile all, so that everyone may share in the bounty and abundance that is God’s? 

            In different ways, these three very intriguing lectionary texts wrestle with these questions.   In Genesis, we read of Joseph’s family reunion with the very brothers who sold him into slavery.  He has the power to bless them or withhold blessings, so what will he do?  Then in Romans 11, we find Paul reflecting on the “fate” of his own people, the Jews.  Has God thrown them aside in favor of the church, because they haven’t responded as favorably to Jesus as Paul would like?  Or will God draw them into God’s realm anyway, because the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable?  Finally, we have one of those texts that upset our picture of Jesus.  We want to envision Jesus as loving and welcoming, and yet we have this text where Jesus encounters a Gentile woman and is anything but kind and welcoming.  But in the midst of all three texts we’re asked – does love win?

           As I almost always do, I begin with the reading from the Hebrew Bible.  I’ve been following the Genesis text as much as possible in these reflections, and today we land on the story of Joseph’s reunion with his brothers.  In an earlier chapter, the brothers, perhaps out of jealousy, decide to kill their younger brother, but upon further reflection decide that selling him into slavery would be more profitable, and in their minds more humane.  If you continue reading the story, Joseph makes out pretty well, though not without a few scrapes.  His ability to interpret dreams and manage households and then nations lead to his rise in political power.  Now, after having interpreted Pharaoh’s dream concerning the seven years of abundance and then seven years of famine, he has tasked with over overseeing the gathering of grain and then subsequent distribution of that grain.  If only President Obama had such a dreamer in his cabinet!  It’s in this context that Jacob, the one who had lost a favored son and faces starvation for his family, decides to send his sons to Egypt to obtain grain.  Ten of the eleven remaining brothers go on the trip, with only the youngest, Benjamin, staying behind.  When Joseph spots his brothers he is overjoyed, but decides to make them jump through a few hoops, including making them go and get Benjamin, before he reveals himself.  Throughout this ordeal the brothers have no idea that it is Joseph who holds their fate in his hands.  So, when Joseph finally reveals his identity to them, they pull back in fear and guilt.  But Joseph welcomes them and forgives them.  Don’t worry, he tells them, for God has sent me here to save lives.  What you meant for evil, God has used for the good of all. 

There is a way of reading this passage that makes God into the puppet master, the one who determines every step.  But, there is another way of seeing this, one that is perhaps more faithful to the meaning of the text, and if I might borrow from Process Theology as a prism to read the text, we can see God as one who draws out, through persuasion, our participation in creating something good, even if it means adapting to what was meant for evil.  So, here is Joseph, having been made father over Pharaoh and master over Egypt, living out a role that God has prepared for him, so that he might be the bearer of salvation – of Egypt and of his own family, from whom he had been estranged.  The blessing that would come with reconciliation would be the opportunity to live in Goshen, close to Joseph.  And as we see in his response to his brother Benjamin, with whom he shared a mother, God is faithful and loving and merciful.  Yes, love wins!      

In Romans 9-11 Paul wrestles with the status of his own people, the Jewish people, in relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is an important question that has vexed the church for millennia – where do the Jews fit in the realm of God?  Is the church the new Israel, replacing the old Israel in the covenant of God?  We use the word supersessionism to describe this perspective.  That has been a predominant view, but Paul appears to go in a different direction.  He makes it clear that God hasn’t rejected the Jewish people, because “the gifts of calling of God are irrevocable.”  Once you’re a member of the family, you’re always a member of the family.  Even if, as the brothers of Joseph had done, you reject one of your own, that doesn’t lead to your rejection.  What it might lead to is blessings for others, outside the family.  Yes, Paul may have been frustrated with the “disobedience” of his brothers and sisters in the Jewish community, but in the end he believed that God’s covenant love would win out.  In his mind, the covenant of God is unconditional.  If it was otherwise then we wouldn’t have confidence in God’s love.  It is clear that for Paul, God is not fickle, and in that we can all take solace.  Since Paul is writing to Gentile Christians, who may have begun seeing themselves as better than the Jews, Paul offers a reminder that these people remain God’s people.  But that reminder should be a welcome one, because it reminds us that God’s love is steadfast, and that God is concerned about the welfare of every person.  With this promise in mind we can turn to the final sentence, where Paul states that “God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (vs. 32).  The word about imprisonment should give us pause, for it seems to suggest that God is responsible for our disobedience, but the emphasis needs to be placed on the concluding phrase where we’re told that God will be merciful to all.  We may all stand in disobedience, that is, we’re all in this together, but even as God is faithful to this irrevocable covenant with Israel, so God will show mercy to all.  Is this a universalist statement?   That is a good question.  It could simply mean that God will show mercy to those whom God foreknew, a group that isn’t completely defined by this text.  But, if we all share in disobedience, can it not be that we all share in this mercy of God?  Is this not a reminder that, as Paul noted earlier, nothing can separate us from the love of God? (Rom. 8:39).  I find the reflections of Kyle Felder in Feasting on the Word helpful.  Reflecting on Karl Barth’s suggestion that Christ is the elect one, the one whom God foreknew, and the one who has been “rejected for our sakes,” he writes:  “So Paul ends where began, with the fact that nothing can separate us (and hopefully anyone else) from the love of God” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3, p. 354).     

As I noted earlier this reading from the gospel, in which Jesus is confronted by the pleas for help from the Canaanite/Cyrophoenician woman, is a bit startling.  Jesus is, in the minds of so many of us, the one who welcomes all into his presence (except maybe self-righteous religious leaders), but here we find him first ignoring the pleas of this woman whose daughter is apparently possessed by demons, and then when he finally addresses her, Jesus tells her that he’s only sent to the lost children of Israel.  There is in this attitude a real sense of exclusivism.  God knows who is in and obviously this woman isn’t on the list. 

The woman, however, keeps after him.  She won’t let up, and even as the disciples urge Jesus to send her away, he decides to engage her in conversation.  But again, this isn’t the loving and welcoming Jesus we all know and love.  This is a rather nasty and bigoted Jesus, or so it seems.  Why should he attend to her needs, for it’s not appropriate to give the children’s food to the dogs?  Does this sound like the Jesus we know and love?  How do we account for this Jesus who calls this woman (and the people she represents) dogs?   Remember that in this culture dogs aren’t the beloved pets they are in our culture.  This is as insulting as one could get.  But the woman remains persistent and even accepts Jesus’ description of her, if it will get his attention.  She says to him, don’t even the dogs get to share in the crumbs from the table?  Could she not at least have a few crumbs for her daughter?  What could Jesus say then?  How could he push her aside, for there was no answer to her question?   And so, Jesus says to her:  what faith you have, “let it be done for you as you wish.”  At that moment the girl is healed.  Some have suggested that this encounter is a conversionary moment – not on the part of the woman, but on the part of Jesus.  It is in this encounter that the kingdom vision of Jesus expands beyond the Jewish community to embrace the whole of creation.   That may be difficult solution for some to embrace, for how could Jesus need to be converted?  But however we answer the question as to why Jesus responded to the woman in this way; it does seem that Jesus has embraced the message of mercy and reconciliation that is present in the Genesis text and in Romans 11.  That is, it seems that since mercy has been shown to one who seemed outside the bounds of divine mercy, the door must be open to all and that all are welcome. 

Yes, it seems that love does win!

Reposted from August 11, 2011

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Church: Sacramental Presence (Unfettered Spirit)

Another way of envisioning the nature of the church is to turn to sacramental theology. The idea of sacrament, which is traditionally defined in terms of the visible/material serving as signs of invisible grace, allows us to peer beneath the surface of our ecclesial realities. In seeking to reenvision the church sacramentally, I’m not just suggesting that the church is the place where we receive sacraments, but that being in community we experience sacramental grace. If the church is by definition the living body of Christ in the world, then it’s a visible sign of Christ’s spiritual presence. As a sacramental sign, the church brings to an alienated and estranged world the reconciling and transforming work of the Spirit. It’s as Leonardo Boff has written, “the sacrament, sign, and instrument of the now living and risen Christ, that is, the Holy Spirit.” [Boff,Church, Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church150.]   Where the church as the body of Christ is present, working compassionately by caring for the homeless, the jobless, the oppressed, the imprisoned, then Christ is present and grace is made visible.

The church isn’t the only sign of God’s gracious presence in the world. To say this would limit God’s ability to be present in ways that lie outside the walls of the church (“there is no salvation outside the church,” for instance). The church is, however, a foundational sign, a “thin place” where we can encounter the creator. Thin places, are sacramental moments, “a mediator of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us.” Thus, it’s a means of God’s grace to humanity, even to the creation itself.

These sacramental thin places may come in many forms, ranging from geographical places such as Jerusalem or Rome or the mountains or the sea, to music or the arts. They are places “where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within us.”  [Borg, Heart of Christianity, p. 156].    Because worship can be a thin place, the church as a visible entity offers the possibility of experiencing life-changing encounters with God. Unfortunately, in spite of our decision to make time and room for worship, we don’t always recognize God’s sacramental presence in our midst.