Friday, October 31, 2014

"Heaven Is Not Fear"

Fear is a great motivator. It motivates because it pushes us to take care of number 1 at all costs. Now from an evolutionary perspective there is a place for fear -- but from the perspective of faith there isn't.

With elections just days away in which there possibly be important national and international consequences, the politics of fear are in full swing. Fear is used to either motivate one to vote for/against a candidate or simply not vote.  If both candidates are a threat to our lives, perhaps it's better to stay home.  Now, on Monday I'll post a piece on the importance of voting, but that's for a different day.  Then there is the hysteria out there concerning Ebola. Ebola is certainly a threat in West Africa, but it isn't a threat here in the States. This business about quarantines is all politics and not science, which is why I throw my support behind nurse Kaci Hickox.  I think in the end she will be vindicated by the facts, and the officialdom who wish to keep her under house arrest will be humiliated.  We have much bigger threats at hand from the flu to gun violence. But then again this is the fear issue of the moment. Besides, if we allow fear to govern our response to ebola, we will likely exacerbate the problem and deter willing volunteers to go to Africa to deal with the things at the source.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Orange October -- A Celebration

Last night those watching Game 7 of the World Series got to enjoy watching history in the making. Madison Bumgarner, a twenty-five year old pitcher, pitched five dominant innings of relief to power the San Francisco Giants to their third Championship in five years, to go with two previous dominant wins as a starter (in three World Series he has a .25 ERA -- amazing). Oh, and this series clinching win came on the road in game seven - a fete that hasn't happened since 1979, when the Willie Stargell led Pirates beat the Orioles.  They were a family, and so is this Giants team! 

As a life-long Giants fan who endured years of  unfulfilled hopes and dreams (and a lot of bad teams), these three championships have been wonderful. Bumgarner is a cornerstone to all three.  This one came twenty-five years after the Giants made their first appearance in twenty-seven years (a 1962 series the Giants lost to the Yankees in seven).  That series against the A's, of course was the one interrupted by an earthquake. The Giants were swept by a team with two dominant pitchers. I did get to go to game 4, but alas it was in a losing effort.  Then there was the 2002 series against the Angels, which the Giants lost in seven.   But then came 2010 and a beginning of an amazing run. Maybe it will continue on, but maybe this is it.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Southern White Evangelical Decline -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The country is becoming more diverse, and thus the cultural leaders of the past are finding it more difficult to retain their influence. In places like the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast religion casts a very short shadow. In the South that shadow is much longer, but as Martin Marty shows us -- it too is shortening. This is especially true of the influence of White Evangelicals who have been a cultural and political force in the South.  But is that drawing to a close?  Take a read.  


Southern White Evangelical Decline
Monday | Oct 27 2014
First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida                            Credit: Fbcjax / Wikemedia Commons
Southern Evangelicals Dwindling—and Take the GOP Edge With Them screams a headline in the online Atlantic (17 Oct. 2014). Below it, Robert P. Jones, the adventurous and reliable CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) reports on the Institute's 43,000 interviews throughout 2013.

I’ll exegete the meaning of the first three words of that headline, and leave the last seven to prognosticators, politicians, and pollsters. Explanation: Sightings on Mondays doesn’t usually “do” political hard news and partisan opinion, thanks to a “division of labor.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Celebrity Preachers Beware! -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 21A

23 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

                Every year it seems that a Christian celebrity falls prey to their own ego. Many will know the recent story of Mark Driscoll and his fall from power. A well known mega-church pastor, he was undone not merely by accusations of plagiarism, but ultimately by heavy-handed authoritarian leadership. His fall was quick and far. Robert Schuller’s “fall” was different – he simply couldn’t sustain his “vision” and so the great and grand Crystal Cathedral ended up in the hands of the Catholic diocese of Orange, serving as its new cathedral. As the pastor of a small church I could take solace in the belief that I am not in a position to be tempted by such visions of grandeur, but is this true?  Are we not all tempted by the need for honor and recognition? Do we not wish to be called doctor or pastor or Reverend?

Monday, October 27, 2014

C.S. Lewis and the Crisis of a Christian (Gregory Cootsona) -- Review

C. S. LEWIS AND THE CRISIS OF A CHRISTIAN. By Gregory S. Cootsona. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. 169 pages.

           Like many Christians C.S. Lewis is one of the authors who has traveled with me over a lifetime. From the Chronicles of Narnia to Mere Christianity, he has inspired our imaginations and helped resolve lingering questions of the faith. Fifty years after his death people continue to delve into his books and make pilgrimages to the places he inhabited in Oxford. During my own time in Oxford, I spent a lunch time in the very room at the Eagle and Child Pub, where Lewis gathered with colleagues and friends including J.R.R. Tolkien to talk about their work and drink beer.  If you happen to go to the Magdalen College chapel you can find the stall where he sat while a Fellow there.  Then there is the pulpit at St. Mary the Virgin University Church where he preached his famed sermon The Weight of Glory, a pulpit that also featured such luminaries as John Wesley and John Henry Newman.

                While Lewis remains popular, his popularity is to be found largely among Evangelicals, a community with whom Lewis didn’t share a lot in common.  But, his books and some papers are now lodged in the library at Wheaton College, making him by “adoption” and Evangelical luminary.  One needn’t be an Evangelical or even agree with all or even much of his work to find something valuable. As for me I have found the Chronicles of Narnia more insightful than Mere Christianity or the Problem of Pain, but whatever point of contact, reading Lewis should be a requirement.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Giving Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Matthew 26:26-29

It is stewardship season once again. This means that the council members are making out budgets to fund next year’s ministries.  The budget covers things like church maintenance, staff salaries, and funding for the ministries and mission we engage in.

Budget-making requires both realism and faith. We can’t spend more than we take in through pledges, offerings, and endowment earnings, which means that if you’re not up-to-date on your pledge – Wynn Miller would like to see you!  After all, we can’t pay our bills with promises of future income.  At the same time the budget needs to be a document of faith. It needs to tell a story about our vision as a congregation. While we’ve not yet developed what is called a Narrative Budget that focuses more on the mission than numbers, our budget should express a vision for mission and ministry. So, when we write a budget we need to leave some room to grow in our generosity and vision for mission.  

During “stewardship season” I usually preach at least two stewardship sermons.  In the first sermon I usually introduce the topic of stewardship and then at the end preach about thanksgiving.  This year, I’m going to double that number and preach four stewardship sermons, which will be centered around the theme “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  These passages of Scripture selected by our friend Ron Allen of Christian Theological Seminary focus our attention on the Table and on the continuing presence of Jesus as we join God in making present the realm of God on earth as in heaven.  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Carol Howard Merritt at Central Woodward Christian Church

Perry Gresham
Lecture and Clergy Day

November 7-9, 2014

Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
Pastor and Author  

Offered in partnership by
Central Woodward Christian Church and Christian Theological Seminary

Friday, October 24, 2014

Deuteronomy (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible) -- Review

DEUTERONOMY (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible).  By Deanna A. Thompson.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xvii + 270 pages.

Reading biblical commentaries is a necessary but often daunting task for a preacher or bible teacher.  This can be especially true if the focus is on textual or historical intricacies. This work is essential, but for the non-specialist a trip down such methodologies can mean getting lost in the weeds.  When the biblical book under review is a book like Deuteronomy, which seem so distant from our own world, getting lost in the weeds can keep us from finding anything of true value.  For the preacher and teacher, what is needed most are commentaries that show understanding of the theology and practices contained within those books, so that we might hear something of value for own time.  The Belief Commentary series, edited by the late William Placher and Amy Plantinga Pauw offers us just such trove of riches.  Deanna Thompson's contribution to this series, focusing on Deuteronomy, is a splendid example of what can happen when a scholar engages a text with exegetical rigor but also theological sensitivity.

Thompson is Professor of Religion at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.  She is Lutheran by confession. Yes, she does bring in Luther and acknowledges her indebtedness to her tradition, even as she is not captive to it.   She is an excellent and thoughtful writer, making her commentary a joy to read.  Yes, this is a commentary on a book we rarely read that is a joy to read.  Understanding the narrative ark and the theological issues present, Thompson tales is on a journey into a world very different from our own, revealing to us ways in which to receive from this text of scripture a word for today.   

While the commentary is rooted in Thompson’s own exegetical work, she focuses her attention on theology of this concluding chapter of the Pentateuch.  Here we find Moses’ final testament and a summation and restating of the Law.  We find definitions of the covenant obligations imposed on Israel along with both blessings and curses. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bob Gray -- Remembering a Childhood Hero

Bob Gray -- far right -- on a Cornwall-Gray picnic
When you are a child you probably have a hero or two.  These are the people whom you want to emulate in life.  It might be a parent or an older sibling, or maybe a neighbor.  In my case, as a child living in Mt. Shasta, California my hero was Mr. Gray.  My father was a rather detached parent, and into that role in many ways stepped my neighbor.  

The Gray family became my family too.  There were four children.  Doug was the oldest and already nearing high school.  Mary was younger, but old enough to serve as a baby sitter.  David was just a couple of years older and Don was my age -- and my first best friend.  We moved to Klamath Falls when I was nine, but during that six year period living in Mt. Shasta, we were like family.

4th of July "float" -- Bob Gray Truck
Bob Gray was a kind, gentle father to his own children and he reached out to me as well.  What gave excitement to the story, however was Bob's job.  He was a Fire Control Officer with the US Forest Service.  With lots of National Forest land in the area, the Forest Service was a major employer.  All the personnel had their green and white trucks parked in front of their houses.  When a fire occurred, perhaps up on the mountain, the trucks would all head off to the fire.  Because the Forest Service office was just a block from our elementary school, Don and I often road to school in that very same truck.  So, it's no wonder that at that moment in time I wasn't thinking about becoming a professor or a pastor.  No, I wanted to be like my hero Bob Gray, Fire Control Officer.

Bob died the other day at the age of 92.  It's been a few years since we've seen Bob and Betty at their McCloud log cabin, which Bob built after retirement, but Bob remains a hero to this day.  It is good to have heroes -- like a neighbor who is a Fire Control Officer -- heroes who are not only in the imagination or on the big screen, but in one's life.  And yes, Bob and Betty are people of deep faith!

Godspeed, good and faithful servant!  And my thoughts and prayers to Betty and all the extended Gray family -- who are part of my family as well.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Religion Unites or Divides -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Does religion unite or divide? That's a complex question. Why know lots of stories about religiously inspired or at least rationalized violence. It is present in every culture and religious context. We also know stories of how it unites and serves. The question raised by Martin Marty in this essay concerns why in the United States there has been so little religiously inspired violence. It's not that it is totally absent, but it is less than many other places in the world.  Could it be a result of something present in our "constitutional polity"?  One that is in its essence secular but allowing for full expression of religious expression (as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others or injure them in some way)?  I invite you to take a read and offer your thoughts.  

Religion Unites or Divides
Monday | Oct 20 2014
Rally in Pensacola to support educators on trial in federal court for praying in school (2009)             Image Credit: Cheryl Casey /
“ISIS CRISIS.” . . . “EBOLA CRISIS” . . . “ECONOMIC WORRIES” . . . Headlines about these and others point to realities which often have religious dimensions. One of them is posed in a featured interview with Jodi Picoult, the novelist author of Leaving Time, in the New York Times Book Review (Oct. 9, 2014). She was asked, “What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?” She was ready with a clear response: “One that explores why our country is so contentiously divided along the fault line of religion.”

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Finals Week -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A

34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37 He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
    until I put your enemies under your feet”’?
45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

            If you’ve been to college, or even experienced high school, you likely know the meaning of the words “Final’s Week.”  That’s the dreaded week that papers are due and major tests are given. If you’re lucky your professor won’t give a comprehensive test, but only one that covers the material presented since the last test. Looking back to the tests I gave as a professor, I didn’t put greater wait on the final that the other tests.  I did, however, require students to take and pass the final in order to pass the class. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

God Is Not Afraid of New Things

Like m any I've been watching with great interest reports on the recently concluded Roman Catholic Synod on the Family. Pope Francis has been at the very minimum calling for a change of tone in the church, along with moving the focus away from a narrow spectrum of issues to a a broader, more open agenda.  This turn has not been welcomed by all. Indeed, a vocal group of "traditionalists" has been resisting this change with all their might, which goes to show you that the Papacy might be a monarchy, but it's not an absolute one.  

While earlier messages from the Pope have focused on economic justice, provoking much angst on the part of politically conservative Catholics -- especially those working for Fox or in Congress.  This time it has been issues of the family, and whether the church should be more welcoming to those who are divorced, who live together before marriage, and of course LGBT folks.  The initial reports were very promising.  The report from preliminary report from the Synod showed real movement toward openness and acceptance. This raised much hue and cry from conservatives.  In the end those paragraphs of openness were toned down.  But even in this form they couldn't get the required 2/3rds vote to move forward.  The paragraphs had a majority of supporters, just not enough.  What is interesting is that normally such paragraphs would be stricken from the final document published by the church.  The Pope, however, wanting the church to be more open, requested that they be included for discussion by the faithful.  

The Pope is steering an interesting course. The Roman Catholic Church will not see overnight change, but there does seem to be a new spirit. And as is seen with the demotion of one of the leading traditionalists -- Raymond Burke -- the Pope will use whatever power at his disposal to sideline his critics.  Monarchs can do that!!

What I find fascinating here is the message Pope Francis delivered to worship yesterday morning in a Mass that concluded the Synod:  "God is not afraid of new things."  That is an important word from the midst of a church that has seen itself as the protector of tradition.  May we who stem from the Reformation, with its message of "semper reformanda" (always reforming) hear that message in our own contexts.  What is the new thing that God is wanting to do in our midst?  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arguing With God - A Sermon for Pentecost 19A

Exodus 33:12-23

Is it okay to argue with God?  Moses thought so.  So did Abraham. You might say that to argue with God is to intercede with God. And it seems as if God invites us to bring our concerns into God’s presence.

As we bring our journey through Exodus to a close, the people are about to leave Sinai. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There’s only one problem, God isn’t sure whether to continue on with them.  God has had enough dealing with this “stiff-necked people,” and while God hasn’t unleashed his wrath on them, he’s not sure how long this can continue.  Apparently, that Golden Calf affair was the last straw.

If God isn’t sure whether it’s a good idea to continue on, Moses won’t hear of it.  To Moses, there’s no point going on to the Promised Land without God.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The River of Life (Lee Harmon) -- A Review

THE RIVER OF LIFE: Where Liberal and Conservative Christianity Meet Gonzalez, FL:  Energion Publications, 2014.  84 pages.

                What is a liberal Christian (I realize that there are those who think that these terms are mutually exclusive)?  Can a liberal Christian meet up with a conservative one and have a truly constructive conversation?  Lee Harmon, a writer/blogger, sets out to present his vision of liberal Christianity in order to prepare for that conversation. He does so by addressing the chief dividing issues by seeking to interpret them in light of the biblical story. 

                 In The River of Life Harmon offers us the defining marks of what he believes a liberal/agnostic Christian faith looks like.  He offers a vision of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, even if he finds it necessary to be agnostic as to the nature of the God whom Jesus seeks to represent.  In other words, he’s not too sure about the God we find described in the biblical story, even if the one representing God seems to be a good guide to life.

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant!!

After last night's dramatic ending to a hard fought National League Championship Series -- the Giants won 4 games to one, but every game went down to the wire -- I decided I had to shift from religion and politics to my other passion -- the San Francisco Giants.  Yes, in memorable fashion - -like the 1951 Giants with Bobby Thomson's Shot Heard Around the World, an unexpected home run sent the Giants on to the World Series!

The Giants aren't a poor team, but they can't compete with the Dodgers and Yankees for the biggest names.  They have their stars, but during this post season it was the unsung heroes that stood out.  Think about Matt Duffy bunting or Yusmeiro Petit pitching six innings of relief in what became essentially a second game against the Nationals, and then coming back on Wednesday evening and shutting the door on the Cardinals when it looked as if things would get out of hand.  The Giants capitalized on mistakes by their opponents rather that (at least until last night) depending on the long ball. But even there it wasn't the expected bangers who stood out.  It wasn't Posey, Sandoval, or Pence who hit the big home runs.  It was little Joe Panik, a rusty Michael Morse, and a converted first-baseman/pinch hitter playing in left field who did the damage.  

Baseball may not be the "National Pastime" as it once was, but this series against the Cardinals demonstrates the beauty of baseball.  It offered a picture of passion and determination, skill and desire. Unexpected players can rise to the occasion, like Joe Panik for the Giants or fellow rookie Kelton Wong of the Cardinals. 

Now it's on to Kansas City where we will take on an equally unlikely opponent -- the other league's Wild Card, who are playing in their first World Series in twenty-nine years.  I feel their pain and desire.  After all, it was twenty-seven years between the 1962 World Series, when the Giants lost a heart-breaker to the Yankees (I was four and do not remember the game), and the 1989 series against the A's, a series marked by a major earthquake.  I got to go to the make up game.  And it wasn't until four years ago -- 2010 -- that I got to see the team I've supported all my life win the Championship.  Now, were' back for a third championship in five years.  

Go Giants!!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion -- Book Note

FEASTING ON THE WORD ADVENT COMPANION: A Thematic Resource for Preaching and Worship.  Edited by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Kimberly Bracken Long. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014. x + 195 Pages.

As I write this the worship team from my congregation and I have been working on plans for Advent. Advent is, as any pastor or music minister knows, is a difficult season to plan for. There is this heavy cloud of the commercialized Christmas vision hanging over it. The texts and hymns for the season tend to be dark, while the people want to sing Joy to the World and Jingle Bells.  Advent is supposed to be a season of contemplation, reflection, even penitence. Since it is a new season for many Protestants we're not really sure what to do with it.  For lectionary preachers, and I count myself among them, there comes a point when you feel like you need to turn to something else for inspiration.  You are ready to try something new.

Many preachers, especially lectionary preachers already know about the Feasting on the Word series of commentaries, edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, a series that is now complete. Westminster John Knox has begun to build upon that foundation with a second series focusing on the Gospels, appropriately named Feasting on the Gospels (edited by Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson).   Building further on that series, Kimberly Bracken Long, Associate Professor of Worship at Colombia Theological Seminary edits the Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, several volumes of which are now in press.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GOD AND CAESAR - A sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

Note:  The Gospel reading for Sunday comes from Matthew 22:15-22. The only time I've preached on the text came in 2002, before I started blogging.  I decided that it might be helpful/useful to share this sermon for the first time outside First Christian Church of Santa Barbara.

When I was young, I think ninth grade, I thought about being a politician.  We had a class called SUTOE, which was short for Self Understanding Through Occupational Exploration.  I think you can understand why we called SUTOE.   This class was supposed to help us decide what to do when we grew up.  Since I was thinking about politics, I decided to visit with an attorney.  After all, most politicians start out as attorneys.  So Harold, when are you going to run for office?

My interest in politics comes naturally.  My father served as Richard Nixon's campaign chair for San Francisco in the 1962 gubernatorial election.  When we moved to Mt. Shasta my dad served as chair of the Republican Central Committee and had a weekly radio program.  My mother got involved as well, serving as President of the Republican women and attending the 1966 National Republican Women's convention in Washington D.C..  My turn came after we moved to Klamath Falls.  I got to meet Bob Packwood when he was running for the senate in 1968 and I stood along the road and helped welcome Richard Nixon when he came to town that same year.  In 1972 I worked in party headquarters and went door-to-door polling people on their presidential choices.  So, by now I should be a member of congress, don't you think?  Strangely, something happened along the way and my life went in a different direction.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Caesar’s Due -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19A

Washington Memorial (Smithsonian)
Matthew 22:15-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20 Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.


            There are two things that are certain in life – death and taxes.  I would assume that most every American knows the meaning of April 15th.  It is the dreaded day that one’s taxes are due (unless you’ve made other arrangements). The IRS, of course, is one of the most despised agencies of government – in large part due to the fact that its only job is to take our “hard-earned money” in the form of taxes. It doesn’t matter that these revenues help fund important services that we benefit from – it still hurts to pay taxes.  In recent months the reputation of the IRS has taken a bigger hit, whether founded or not, due to its investigations of certain groups who might be overstepping the boundaries placed around tax-exempt organizations. Whatever your view of this latest situation, we must admit that tax collectors have never been popular.  Not in biblical times. Not in the medieval world. Not today!  And if IRS agents knock on the church office door, as happened to me, you have reason to be concerned! (Don’t worry we took care of everything – it’s a long story). 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kingdom Conspiracy (Scot McKnight) -- A Review

KINGDOM CONSPIRACY: Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014. 289 pages.

What does the kingdom of God look like? Is it a heavenly place that those who accept Jesus get to experience when they die?  Or is it a matter of pursuing social justice and the common good? What role does the church play in this kingdom? Is the kingdom synonymous with the church, or is it much larger than the church?  Is it possible that they have no relationship with each other? These are questions that Christians have been debating for generations. In what looks like a post-Constantinian era (or a post-Theodosian era), the question of whether the kingdom has something to do with the public square becomes even more germane.

The question of how the church fits into the biblical definition of the kingdom has become pertinent because many Christians, as well as non-Christians have begun to wonder whether God has anything to do with the church.  Is the church an institution whose time has long since passed and needs to get out of the way, so God can get busy taking care of the created order?  Where once it was assumed that outside the church, which controlled access to the sacraments, there was no salvation, many have abandoned that idea, arguing that it is better to be spiritual than religious. So, instead of building the church, we should get out in the world and join in the mission of God.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

God Under Control -- A Sermon for Pentecost 18A

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Nicolas Poussin (1633-4)

Exodus 32:1-14

Last Sunday Rick preached on the Ten Commandments – the biblical ones, not the movie! According to the Exodus story, these commandments define God’s covenant expectations. In making the covenant with Israel, God said to them – I will bless you, but this is what I expect of you in return. The commandments begin with this proclamation:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:1-4).
The point being – there is just one God, and don’t make images of God.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Left Behind -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I did not read the book, nor did I see the original movie based upon it, nor do I plan to see the current movie based upon it. For one thing, I long ago gave up my "rapture" obsessed faith, realizing that this was not the best reading of Scripture nor fitting with the way I had come to understand God. While I do occasionally go to see bad movies, I'm hesitant to see bad movies that have religious themes. Martin Marty writes, as he always does, with wit and wisdom about how we might approach bad movies on religious themes -- both those that seem to support the faith and those that don't. I invite you to read and reflect, but probably not go see the movie!


Left Behind
Monday | Oct 6 2014
Rapture of people out of the world                                   Image Credit: Benjamin Haas / Shutterstock
Warning: if you open the links mentioned in the “Sources” section at the end of this column, your agenda of other things to read may well be left behind. The “Sources” list just a few reviews out of many dealing with the film that opened over the weekend, Left Behind.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Marriage: A Partnership of Equals (Part 3)

The traditional model for marriage relationships emphasizes hierarchy or chain of command. The implicit message of this model is that women are by nature inferior to men, and therefore need male guidance.  Therefore, due to their mental and/or physical inferiority women should submit to their husbands (or fathers). This perspective colors the way that families structure themselves, but it also influences they way they interpret biblical passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33.[1] 

Although many traditionalists reject the idea that they view women as inferior to men, in practice they demonstrate that they do believe women to be inferior. Resisting women in leadership roles, including the ordained ministry is at least suggestive of such a view. It isn’t that there are no differences between men and women, but do these differences imply subordination?

            If we affirm the essential equality of the sexes then male dominance cannot be affirmed.  I would suggest that in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 Paul implies that men and women are not only created as equals but that they should relate to each other on the basis of mutual submission.  If this is true, then should we not also read Ephesians 5 in the same light?  That is, if 1 Corinthians 7 teaches mutual submission in the context of marriage, then should we not look to this principle in our reading of texts like Ephesians 5? If this is true, then perhaps passages like 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul is seen as silencing women in church likely is a culturally-bound directive. That is, Paul is concerned about how the church is seen from outside, and feels the need to rein in those who have celebrated too greatly their freedom in Christ.   

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Marriage -- A Partnership of Equals (Part 2)

            The principle of reciprocal authority or mutual submission is developed by Paul in verses 2-4, and is followed in verses 5-6 with the development of the principle of joint decision making in marriage.  Paul writes: "Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control."  The New International Version brings out with even greater clarity the key phrase, which is "except by mutual consent." This phrase is important, because this is the only example in the New Testament where decision making in marriage is discussed, and it stresses the importance of mutuality.

            In verse 5 of 1 Corinthians 7 Paul addresses those who advocate permanent abstinence from sexual intercourse in marriage on spiritual grounds. Although Paul concedes that spouses might set aside time away from each other for the purpose of  prayer, they must do this together and then come back together, lest they be tempted to seek sexual fulfillment outside the marriage. Even then Paul it is only a concession and not an expectation that one would feel the need to abstain from sex in order to pursue a time of prayer. 

            Although the focus of Paul’s attention in verses 5-6 is the issue of sexual abstinence and infidelity, the key is mutual agreement. In context, there is a contrast between prostitution, which is one-sided (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), Paul calls for the sexual relationship in marriage to be "completely two-sided."  This idea of "two-sided marriage" is rooted in the Greek word symphonia, which we can translate as "mutual agreement" or as "with one voice." The intent of verse 4 then is to remind sexual partners that they don’t have automatic control of their own bodies.[1]  

            In the case of the sexual relationship the decision to refrain from that relationship should come by way of mutual agreement (symphonia).  It is important to note here that Paul did not appeal to the husband as the "spiritual leader" or "head of the family." Instead, Paul instructs married partners to decide together what is appropriate to their own spiritual welfare.  It would seem that this passage, which relates so directly to the shared spiritual life of husband and wife, rules out the idea of the husband being the sole "spiritual leader."

[1]. Scott Bartchy, "Power, Submission, and Sexual Identity among the Early Christians," in Essays on New Testament Christianity, C. Robert Wetzel, ed., (Cincinnati:  Standard Publishing Company, 1978), 59.

A chapter in formation of Marriage Bible Study Guide

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Chosen Few -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18A

Matthew 22:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

22 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 
11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

                Wedding receptions these days are getting increasingly elaborate and expensive.  Many couples first book the reception hall and then go looking for a church or chapel (and accompanying officiant) to fit their reception date. Of course with such affairs, you have to be selective in whom you invite. And if someone somehow manages to slip in uninvited, that person probably will be quickly disinvited (cast out).

                As Jesus once again tells a parable of the kingdom, he compares it to a wedding banquet thrown by the king for his son. The king sends out invitations, but everyone invited rejects the offer. Now when the king sends an invite, you had better have a good reason for saying no.  Thinking that they might not understand how great a celebration this is, he sends out another invite, this time detailing the menu (including the fatted calf). Again the invitees refuse the invitation, but this time things escalate. Not only do they refuse to come, they mock the invitation and therefore the king and his son.  Some of them return home or to work, to that which they believe is more important than the son’s wedding. But some of those invited go even further and mistreat and even kill the messengers. The response here parallels that described in the previous parable of the landowner and those tending the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-46). Who might the messengers be?  Could it be that Jesus has the prophets of old – along with John the Baptist in mind? After all, the prophets rarely were received with gladness.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Marriage – A Partnership of Equals (part 1)

            The Bible was born in a patriarchal age. Women were, for the most part, considered property – first of their fathers and then of their husbands. Although this vision may be the dominant position in the biblical story there are alternative perspectives present in the text. At several points in the story women play either a leading role or have strong roles.  Sarah, Deborah, Tamar, Miriam, Rahab, Ruth and Naomi to name but a few of the leading characters in the Hebrew Bible.  Then there is in the New Testament the way in which Jesus engages with women and raises them up to the status of disciples.  Consider that he makes his first resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene and speaks to Mary of Bethany as a Disciple.  Although Paul is often viewed as less open to women leaders, he considers women such as Priscilla, Phoebe, and Junia as leaders in the church. 

There are texts, such as 1 Corinthians14 that command women to be silent and yet there are also passages that seem to overturn such a view. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 11, even as he gives instructions for proper decorum in the church he assumes that women will be praying and prophesying in the church. When it comes to marriage relationships,Ephesians 5 can either be interpreted in hierarchical or an egalitarian manner. At the heart of the debate over how to interpret these passages is the question of authority. Who, some wonder is going to be in charge?  This question of authority is in some ways part of the dilemma posed by gay marriage. If the partners in the marriage are of the same gender, how do you decide who is in charge? 

Saturday, October 04, 2014

How Not to Understand Isis -- Sightings (Alireza Doostdar)

As the world again enters into a conflagration in the Middle East, we are invited to listen to all manner of interpretations of the conflict and its participants. Right now the focus is on ISIS, a militant organization that claims religious roots and seeks to create a modern Caliphate or pan-Islamic state. This group has taken large swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria. In our attempts to understand the issues, it is easy to move to a singular explanation when things are in reality quite complex. The propagandists of ISIS/ISIL/IS claim roots in the Salafist religious movement, and it has become easy to connect Salafism to Violent Jihad. But is it really so simple? Could there be other factors -- ethnic, cultural, altruism, mental instability, frustration with the realities of life? We don't like complex answers. They don't make for good politics or good war-making for that matter. With regard to Islam and the Middle East, we in the West are largely ignorant of the realities, and so we tend to see things in black and white/monolithic fashion. In this brief essay, Dr. Alireza Doosstdar of the University of Chicago Divinity School helps us sort things out a bit -- but helping us see the complexity of the situation. I invite you to reflect and respond to the essay.


How Not To Understand ISIS
Thursday | Oct 2 2014
Flag of ISIS                                                                                  Image Credit: ronniechua /
The group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or simply the Islamic State (ISIL, ISIS, or IS) has attracted much attention in the past few months with its dramatic military gains in Syria and Iraq and with the recent U.S. decision to wage war against it.