Sunday, November 30, 2014

Restoring Hope -- A Meditation for Advent 1B


Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

****************

                We begin the Advent season reading from Psalm 80, which offers a plea for God to restore the people, that they might be saved.  As to the nature of their distress, we’re not told.  Perhaps those crying out here are the remnant of the nation of Israel that saw its demise at the hand of the Assyrians. Whatever the original context, the people are experiencing despair and God does not seem to be present.  In fact, God seems to be the problem.  Even as their enemies are pushing in on them and their neighbors look upon them with scorn, they wonder whether it is God who looks down upon them in judgment.  After all there is a long tradition of seeing God as not only the solution, but perhaps as the problem.  Could it be that they, the ones reaching out to God, are “sinners in the hands of an angry God?”

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, Year B, Vol. 1 (Kimberly Bracken Long) -- Book Note


FEASTING ON THE WORD WORSHIP COMPANION: Liturgies for Year B, Volume 1. Edited by Kimberly Bracken Long.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiii + 226 pages.

Year B of the liturgical year is here, and so those tasked with planning worship will want to trade their Year A resources for new materials.  With that in mind one might want to check out the next volume in the Feasting on the Word Worship Companions.   This is another addition to the expanding collection of materials that is linked to Westminster John Knox's now completed Feasting on the Word lectionary commentary series.   The worship companions are edited by Kimberly Bracken Long.   


          In addition to editing the worship companions for the Feasting on the Word series, Kimberly Bracken Long is Associate Professor of Worship at Columbia Theological Seminary.  She is also the author of The Worshiping Body: The Art of Leading Worship and The Eucharistic Theology of the American Holy Fairs,  both of which are published by WJK Press. Her editorial team includes six writers who  represent Presbyterian, United Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, and the United Church of Christ. This is a distinctly ecumenical/Mainline Protestant venture, though the various pieces will reflect the faith expressions of each of the writers.        

           Volume one for Year B provides worship materials for Sundays beginning with the first Sunday of Advent and running through Pentecost Sunday. As Long notes in her introduction, each Protestant tradition has its own distinct forms of prayer, but keeping with the ecumenical nature of this resource the focus will be on those elements that are held in common. Though there is some effort to give expression to some of the diversity of expression. Thus, there are prayers of confession and illumination invoking the Holy Spirit for Presbyterians, while Lutherans and Episcopalians require a prayer of the  and prayers for the departed in their intercessions.  Lutherans want language that lifts up law and grace.  Although there are eucharistic prayers for the seasons and festivals, as a Disciple I would have valued a set of post-communion prayers for each week. 

          The contributors prepare a nice variety of materials for each Sunday and holy days.  Included for each week is a call to worship/opening words, a call to confession, prayer of confession, declaration of forgiveness, prayer of the day, prayer for illumination, prayers of intercession, invitation to the offering, prayer of thanksgiving/dedication, charge, and blessing.  Beyond these liturgical materials that can be used as is or modified as needed, the book provides questions for reflection and household prayers for morning and evening.  Permission is given for recopying, as long as credit is given (of course).   There are worship materials provided for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the day of Ascension.
There is also a scripture index that could be useful for those looking for materials matching texts in use, even if one is not following the lectionary  I should not forget the helpful cloth ribbon provided to mark one's place.  In addition a CD is provided to aid in copying and pasting the materials in bulletins, with acknowledgment provided.

          In using the materials, one can simply read from the book or copy into bulletins or into power points.  Long notes that the "texts are arranged in 'sense lines' -- that is, they look more like poems than paragraphs" (p. x).  They have printed the texts in this manner so that "they can pick up phrases quickly, enabling worshipers to pray them with greater understanding."   She requests, therefore, that if reproducing the texts, one keeps the sense lines in place.  

         As with the earlier volumes, the latest volume provides worship planners with theologically rich materials that are expressive of an ecumenical Protestant understanding of the Christian faith.  For those who have denominationally provided worship books, this volume can provide supplementary materials or simply serve as the foundation for building worship services.  From experience with previous volumes, I can share that these materials are well written and spiritually provocative.  I for one am looking forward to using them in Year B.  

Friday, November 28, 2014

Theology from the Trenches (Roger Gench) -- A Review


THEOLOGY FROM THE TRENCHES: Reflections on Urban Ministry.  By Roger J. Gench.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Viii + 151 pages.

Does the church have a role to play in public life?  That is, should the church devote its attention to things spiritual and stay out of things temporal?  Of course there is always a place for charitable work – that is what it means to love one’s neighbor, but what about taking a further step and engaging the systems that often oppress those living on the margins of society?  Should the church be involved in transforming society or should it stay focused on building the church?    If one feels called to the work of transformation, how will one go about doing this? Questions of this sort relate to one’s theology and how one reads the biblical story.

Using H. Richard’s paradigms of the relationship of Christ and Culture, the Reformed tradition, going back to John Calvin, has assumed that the church is called to engage in the transformation of culture.  The author of Theology from the Trenches, Roger Gench, is part of this Reformed tradition and has embraced the call to be engaged in ministries of transformation.  Currently serving as senior minister of New York Avenue Presbyterian in Washington, D.C., Gench has long experience with community organizing.  His own training and participation in community organizing has come through Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliates in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.  IAF is the oldest community organizing effort in America, having been founded by the oft reviled Saul Alinsky.  Considering the bad press that Alinsky continues to get long after his death, one might wonder what a minister of the gospel would find of value in such an effort, but if one understands the work of community organizing then perhaps one might have a change of heart (perhaps).   

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Giving Thanks with My Whole Heart




I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;

    before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
    for you have exalted your name and your word
    above everything.[a]
On the day I called, you answered me,
    you increased my strength of soul.[b]
All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
    for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
    for great is the glory of the Lord.   (Psalm 138:1-5 NRSV)



It is Thanksgiving morning, and I do have much to be thankful for. I have good health, a family I love, a place of employment. I am fortunate. Part of that fortune is due to factors beyond my control -- place of birth, ethnicity, maleness, etc. It's not that I've not had my struggles, for I have. It is not that I am always deserving, because I am not. But I have experienced a life of blessing.  I recognize that not everyone shares in this blessing. There are reasons for sharing words of (un)gratitude, which Rev. Mindi has done with forthrightness.  I share her concerns about the proliferation of violence in our society and the ongoing realities of poverty and racism afflicting our nation.  People around this country and across the globe suffer in ways I can imagine but have not experienced.  I must keep in mind these realities even as I share my own words of thanksgiving.

With keen awareness of my own situation in life, I join the Psalmist in giving thanks to God with my whole heart.  I give thanks to God for God's steadfast love and faithfulness.  Great is the glory of the Lord.  


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It’s Christmas Time Once Again

With Thanksgiving a day away and shopping time coming with it, I am reposting a piece written for the Thoughtful Christian's Gathering Voices Blog earlier this month.  May it provide a word of hope in the midst of all the hullabaloo of the season.  

A Gathering Voices Post by Bob Cornwall  (Reposted)

While many Christians find it difficult toCorbis-42-57053253keep focused, others are also upset at store clerks who greet them with “Happy Holidays” instead of the obligatory “Merry Christmas.” They get angry the “Christmas party” is now a “holiday party.” To them, December belongs to Christians, and they want to be treated with “respect.” Never mind that not everyone enjoying the season is a Christian.  Indeed, our Jewish friends speak of a “December Dilemma.”  
Christmas has long had both a secular and a religious side to it. At least since the mid-nineteenth century Santa has played a key role in the story of the season. Even if the legend of Santa is rooted in Christian lore, Santa long ago transcended religious and ethnic boundaries. Surely Santa’s sleigh visits every child’s home, no matter their religious profession. Still, in an age when Christians are feeling like they’re losing market share in the religious marketplace, many seem intent on claiming the season as their own. Thus, they feel obliged to berate poor sales clerks who offer them a joyous “season’s greeting,” when “Merry Christmas” is supposedly the only legitimate greeting. 
In the midst of the secular and commercial side of the season, Christians have been asking -- how do we keep Christ in Christmas? Here are five suggestions on how you can:
1. Be kinder  
Perhaps the first way we could go about this is to bring an end talk about the war on Christmas. We can do this by offering a different witness when we go shopping (and most of us will do at least some shopping). Knowing that some of our sisters and brothers will have attacked retail clerks, let us offer a word of grace and thanks to those who often work long hours for little pay so that we can get our shopping in before the dawning of Christmas morn. 
2. Wait to go (or limit) your shopping
Maybe it would be wise to avoid seeking out the big deals on Thanksgiving Evening. Waiting to go shopping, even if you don’t get the best bargains, might be a worthwhile discipline. Yes, fasting from Black Friday frenzy might be a good spiritual discipline. I’m not saying don’t go shopping, just don’t make it the focus of your life calling. 
3. Observe Advent
Observing Advent is always a helpful antidote. The message of Advent is one of preparation and anticipation. It has dark overtones due to its penitential origins. As with Lent, Advent helps us set aside our self-absorption. It is a call to let go of the need for instant gratification. Yes, the message of Advent is one of waiting patiently for the coming of God’s realm.
4. Give back
Setting aside time for service to others can redirect our attention away from the commercial side. There are many ways we can do this. Our congregation has for many years created gift bags for the Detroit Head Start, with clothing, books, and gifts for the children. Making the holiday a bright one for the “least of these” can be a way of stepping back from the brink.
5. Go to church
Finally, make it a priority to attend worship on Christmas Eve or on Christmas Morning.  For me, Christmas hasn’t been Christmas without Christmas Eve worship. Growing up in the Episcopal Church we attended Midnight Mass – at least from the time that I was old enough to stay up that late. Sure I was dead-tired the next afternoon, but Christmas was defined by the singing of sacred carols and sharing at the altar. I still feel that this is the key to Christmas. If you want to put Christ back into Christmas, be sure to come and worship at the feet of the babe born in Bethlehem.
Yes, we can keep Christ in Christmas even in the midst of an increasingly commercialized age.  The choice is ours! 

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Awake, Awake, the Son of Man is Coming -- Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B



Mark 13:24-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

24 “But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
25 and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

26 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. 27 Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

28 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Beware, keep alert;[b] for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, 36 or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.37 And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

******************
                The ancient hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence (4th Century) sets a penitential tone for the season of Advent, which is an appropriate stance as we begin the journey of a new liturgical year:

                Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand;
                Ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand Christ our God to earth descendeth,
                our full homage to demand.

                Advent is a penitential season.  It is a time to take stock of one’s life in preparation for the great festival to be held in the coming weeks.  It is a season of hope and expectation.  It is also a season where we begin to look at how faith is related to the facts of life and whether judgment is in store for us.  In other words, Advent is an eschatological season.    

Monday, November 24, 2014

John Wesley in America (Geordan Hammond) -- A Review

JOHN WESLEY IN AMERICA: Restoring Primitive ChristianityBy Geordan Hammond.  Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Xv + 237 pages.

                Primitivism comes in many forms.  Throughout the history of Christianity reformers have attempted to return to the pristine purity of the primitive church, even if they haven’t always agreed on what marks the true primitive church.  For some the true primitive church is to be found in the pages of the New Testament Church (especially the Book of Acts), while others extend the boundaries of primitive Christianity into the fifth century, long enough to include Nicaea and Chalcedon.  Counted among these primitivists was John Wesley.  Wesley had imbibed a high church vision of primitive Christianity, one that was rooted in the traditions of the early church during his days at Oxford. When an assignment came to go as a missionary in the new British colony in Georgia, Wesley decided to use this assignment as an opportunity to implement his primitivist vision among his charges.  While he believed that he was being assigned by the Society for the Proclamation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) to minister to the Native Americans of the region, when he arrived in Georgia it became clear that his parish would be the community in Savannah.  Although he continued to envision a mission among Native Americans, he did not let this setback deter him from pursuing his dream of restoring the primitive church in America. 

The normative interpretation of Wesley’s sojourn in Georgia is that it was a failure.  Not only did he fail to institute his primitivist vision, he was brought up on charges for his narrowness of practice and ultimately moved away from the theology that drove his mission in Georgia.  That is, his time in Georgia has been interpreted in light of his later Aldersgate experience, in which Wesley saw himself experiencing new birth.  This has led many Methodists to look at mission in Georgia a period of spiritual darkness and therefore of little value to understand Wesley’s later vision.  Geordan Hammond offers us a different picture.  Having consulted the primary sources, including Wesley’s own diaries from the period, he tells a different story.  Even if Wesley reconfigured the nature of his primitivist vision, he never lost the belief that the renewal of the church depended on restoring primitive Christianity.  As it is recorded on his tombstone, his mission was “to revive, enforce, and defend the Pure, Apostolical Doctrines and Practices of the PRIMITIVE CHURCH” (p. 203).  The way in which he understood this mission was developed in the crucible of his mission in Georgia. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Abiding with Christ at the Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Altar at Bath Abbey

John 6:53-59

This morning we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday.  We are also bringing in the harvest of our stewardship conversation.  During the offering you will have the opportunity to share your estimate of giving cards so that we might celebrate the commitment that we are making as a community to support the ministry of this church.
   
Christ the King Sunday brings to a close the liturgical year that began on the First Sunday of Advent.  The liturgical year begins with a word of hope and anticipation. We move through the year lifting up stories of how God is present with us in Christ and through the Spirit.  On this day we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign in its fullness on earth as in heaven. We will continue repeating the cycle until the Day of the Lord comes.  

This Thursday has been set aside by presidential decree as a day to give thanks for the abundance given to us.  Although Thursday has become synonymous with turkey, football, and now shopping, we will have two opportunities this week to join with others in the community to offer thanksgiving for the blessings that have come to us.  You can join me this evening at Big Beaver United Methodist Church for the annual Troy-area Interfaith Group celebration. Then on Tuesday we will be hosting the Troy Clergy Group Thanksgiving Service, which will feature a joint choir. Both services will help us focus on the call to give thanks.  As the Psalmist declares:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
 (Psalm 100:4-5).  
The theme of our stewardship season has been “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  In each of the sermons I have been trying to connect the call to stewardship with the call to the Table.  One of the ways in which we name what happens at the Table is the word Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.”  

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Income and Wealth Inequality: Religion's Current Efforts Won't Cut It -- Sightings (Myriam Renaud)

It is increasingly clear that the income inequality gap is not only getting larger, but it is proving to be damaging to the country. With money being the key to power, we seem to be moving toward an era of rule by oligarchs. Just to make sure we know what we're talking about, an oligarchy is defined as "a country, business, etc., that is controlled by a small group of people."  Myriam Renaud suggests that one of the few institutions left that can challenge this trend are religious ones, but right now our efforts at charity and advocacy are not dealing with the core issue -- the power of money in politics.    I am involved in community organizing, but we haven't tackled this one yet.  None of our efforts are really dealing with it.  So, take a read, offer your thoughts.


Income and Wealth Inequality: Religion's Current Efforts Won't Cut It
by MYRIAM RENAUD
Thursday | Nov 20 2014
                                                                                                                     Image: smikeymikey1 / Shutterstock
The only remaining, major, organized institutions in the US with enough scope and moral authority to launch efforts to reverse this country’s growing income and wealth inequality are the religions. Other institutions have waned; today’s labor unions represent only 7% of private sector employees. Delays matter: as income inequality increases, more children are going to bed hungry.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Obama, Congress, Immigration -- time for real action

I will confess -- I didn't watch President Obama's speech last night.  Like many Americans I watched the latest episode of the Big Bang Theory.  Sheldon was signing off from his internet series on flags.  It's not that I don't think that immigration reform isn't important.  It is very important.  But really, this was not an earth shattering move on the President's part.  Yes, the Republican Party is having a temper tantrum and is threatening all manner of retaliation.  Democrats are sort of giddy.  I say sort of, because they seem to understand that this didn't go far enough.  Indeed, the only way to truly get things moving forward is for Congress to act in a comprehensive way.  Of course a bi-partisan bill was passed some time ago in the Senate and sits there untouched by the House leadership. But the President did address a bit of the problem facing the nation.  

There is a moral case to be made for immigration reform.  Millions of people have come to this country in hopes of achieving a better life.  It might be driven by war and terror at home.  Across the globe we are seeing massive upheavals of regions, with refugees streaming everywhere.  While the Statue of Liberty beckons them, our political process and resistance among the populace keeps us from being more hospitable to those in need.

While I didn't watch the speech, I did check the twitter feed.  That gave me sufficient information on what occurred in the fifteen minutes or so that the President spoke.  As for me, I think the President acted within the bounds of executive authority.  He followed the lead of Presidents Reagan and Bush 41, and addressed the deportation status of about four to five million people.

So I did read the speech this morning.  Here is what he proposes to do.

First, we'll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings, and speed the return of those who do cross over.
Second, I will make it easier and faster for high-skilled immigrants, graduates, and entrepreneurs to stay and contribute to our economy, as so many business leaders have proposed.
Third, we'll take steps to deal responsibly with the millions of undocumented immigrants who already live in our country.

The first two parts shouldn't be controversial. The third point, however, is the crux of the matter.  Here is what he said:

Now here's the thing: we expect people who live in this country to play by the rules. We expect that those who cut the line will not be unfairly rewarded. So we're going to offer the following deal: If you've been in America for more than five years; if you have children who are American citizens or legal residents; if you register, pass a criminal background check, and you're willing to pay your fair share of taxes – you'll be able to apply to stay in this country temporarily, without fear of deportation. You can come out of the shadows and get right with the law.

It is an invitation to those who have lived in the country for five years or have children who are citizens or legal residents you can come out of the shadows register, have a background check, and then pay taxes -- well you get to stay here for now.  It's temporary.  It can be rescinded.  It will cost you.  You won't get any benefits or services.  Just work, pay taxes, and you won't get deported.  In my mind it's really not much.  There's no path to citizenship.  There's not even any legalization of status -- just an agreement not to deport, so you can breath and then perhaps get in line for legal status.

As a preacher I was of course impressed that he drew on the biblical story.  Since many of the opponents of this action like to speak of Christian values, here's a value that they've not been highlighting.  There is a strong sentiment in the Scriptures that speak of welcoming the stranger.  It tells stories of sojourners -- migrants moving from one place to another.  You were an alien the Jewish people were told, so welcome the alien.

In one way or another all Americans are immigrants.  We came from some place else.  Even Native Americans came here from some place else. Yes, they came thousands of years ago, but still it proves my point.  We are a land of immigrants.  Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace that heritage by showing more hospitality to our migrant neighbor.  They too are God's children.  So instead of the histrionics, can we get some work done?  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Come, take the risk of being more." -- Archbishop Blase Cupich


Yesterday Blase Cupich was installed as Archbishop of Chicago, one of America's most important archdioceses.  The Archbishop of Chicago usually gets one of those famous red hats from the Pope (named as a Cardinal).  Interestingly Cupich came from the rather backwater diocese of Spokane.  In other words Pope Francis passed over a number of more high profile bishops to fill this most important post.  What we have learned so far is that this unassuming bishop is of a common mind with the Pope.  He is a pastor who cares about people, especially immigrants and the poor. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mormon Issues -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I would venture to guess that a great many people know that back in the day polygamy was practiced by members of the Mormon faith. If you go to Salt Lake City and visit the Beehive House and the Lion House next door you will learn about Brigham Young's multiple wives. Although polygamy was officially set aside in 1890 in the United Sates by Latter Day Saints President Willard Woodruff.  There have been a few TV shows that explore modern plural marriage, but all my LDS friends over the years, while they highly valued marriage and family, showed no interest in reviving this old practice.  One area of debate has been over whether polygamy went back to Joseph Smith and whether he had multiple wives.  His original wife, Emma Smith, always denied it and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) always denied it.  Recently, as Martin Marty notes, the church in the desire to be transparent is admitting that he had up to forty wives.  Now this isn't new news.  I read Fawn Brodie's No Man Knows My History years ago and she documents as many as fifty-two wives.   In any case, it is interesting that one of the few growing religious movements in America is wrestling with its own past.  Take a read.  


Mormon Issues
by MARTIN E. MARTY
Monday | Nov 17 2014
The Melchizedek priesthood is conferred to Joseph Smith                 Photo: More Good Foundation
Sightings has sighted and commented on trends and travails among standard-brand faith communities this fall: Jews, Protestants, “The Mainline,” “Evangelicals,” “Southern Baptists” and more. Most of them report on or envision down-trends in matters of affiliation and participation.

Who’s left? We get asked: “Why don’t you report on an up-trending group, a set of winners, for a change? Answer: we are not political scientists (or book reviewers) and have to wait until something of public consequence beckons.

Suddenly, in the particular case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), out of a clear (well, “partly cloudy”) sky, these Mormons obliged us, with one action of their leaders hitting front page and top on-line status. Most-quoted and cited was Laurie Goodstein’s front page story in the New York Times (Nov. 10), “It’s Official: Mormon Founder Had up to 40 Wives.”

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Build Transit, Build Business -- Regional Transit for Detroit

You may have heard that Detroit recently emerged from bankruptcy.  If you don't live in or near Detroit, you may have heard more about the bad things than the good things.  But there are signs of new life budding all around us (even if winter is setting in).  One of those buds is the prospect of a truly regional transit system.  People have been trying for forty years to create something that would work.  That day has finally come.  The State established a Regional Transit Authority.  A CEO was hired.  Conversations have begun.  The future looks bright.  Yes, there is a major hurdle lying on the horizon.  To create a regional transit system will require funding, because transit systems don't survive on fares alone.  It takes tax money to sustain the system, but whether we use the system or not we benefit.  Businesses benefit because their workers and their customers can get to where they need to go.  Educational institutions, hospitals, churches can benefit.  Riders young and old benefit.
 Unfortunately regional politics have often stood in the way of creating a system that would lift the region.

As a pastor I believe transit is a moral issue.  The Metro Coalition of Congregations  is one of the leaders in raising the moral side of the question.  I serve as the President of the coalition, which is a project of the Harriet Tubman Center.  Our transit task force, which began under the leadership of two young adults from the congregation I serve, and now is chaired by my colleague, the Rev. Louise Ott, laid the ground work for now two important summits.  The first was held in June at the Detroit Zoo with the moniker "Better Transit, Better Business."  This morning we held a second summit, where we heard from the chair of the RTA Board and the new CEO Michael Ford.  We heard from leaders of four educational institutions in the region.  We heard from an expert in laying out campaigns to achieve the goal of successful transit systems.  We pledged our commitment to working together to accomplish the goal.  Rev. Kevin Turman, the Chair of the Board of the Harriet Tubman Center and a leader in the Detroit Clergy Group and I as President of MCC pledged to gather clergy and religious leaders from across the region to pursue this cause.  My hope and prayer is that this effort to achieve a reliable transit system connecting all points of the region can help build bridges across the divides present in this region. One word that we heard as a criticism of the event was that while Millennials were talked about on the program, they weren't on the program -- we will make every effort to address that next time!!

Near the end of our time together the clergy surrounded the gathered group and offered a word of blessing on all who were gathered and all who were yet to gather.  As they gathered around the room I was asked to offer a few words, which I'd like to share:

Transit is a moral issue. In North Carolina the Moral Monday Movement began with a handful of people gathering at the state house who were concerned about justice.  It took time, but that handful grew, week by week, a few persons at a time, until there were thousands gathering to make their voices heard.   A similar movement is being born in the faith communities of this region.  We also began with a handful, but little by little the numbers are growing.  We are watching and talking and most of we’re praying that the leaders of our communities, whether in the government or in the business sector will purse the common good.  Today we have come to give our support to the development of a reliable and affordable regional public transit system.  Even as I am speaking clergy are encircling the room.  We come from the city and the suburbs lending our voices to the cause we’ve been talking about today.  We are going to stay on this task until we reach success.   

We know that the road ahead will be difficult.  Many people must be convinced that this is a worthy endeavor.  They want their tax dollars spent wisely.  No more bridges to nowhere.  But though there will be skepticism and cynicism to be overcome, we believe that the path forward is the right one.  If you're living in the region and you read this, won't you join me in this work.  If you live outside the region and you read this, won't you pray for us.  Detroit is on the mend. And by Detroit I mean both the city itself and its suburbs!
    

Monday, November 17, 2014

Here Comes the Judge! -- Lectionary Reflection for Christ the King Sunday

Matthew 25:31-46 -- New Revised Standard Version



31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”


                The liturgical year comes to an end with Christ the King/Reign of Christ Sunday. As we ponder what it means for Christ to be king, it is perhaps fitting that the gospel reading for the day focuses on judgment. One of the roles an ancient king had was that of judge. Solomon, we’re told, was renowned for his wisdom as exemplified in the judgment rendered with the women who contested to whom a child belonged. It was said that Israel “stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute judgment” (1 Kings 3:16-28).  With knowledge that monarchs were charged with being the final judges in their realms, we end this cycle of readings knowing that judgment has been a central theme of recent readings from Matthew’s Gospel.  Since the moment that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem being hailed as Son of David, this has been at the heart of his message even as he faces imminent arrest.    

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Community of Sharing --A Sermon on Stewardship

Acts 2:42-47


Back during my days teaching at Northwest Christian University, a couple of my students asked me what I thought about them living as a group of students in community. I remember acknowledging their interest in this arrangement, but since one of the students involved had just gotten married, I suggested that they might want to take it slowly and cautiously. While they decided not to pursue the venture, one of those students ended up forming just such a community. That community in Eugene is part of a movement that has come to be known as the New Monasticism. This movement builds off the teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called on Christians to live together in community and pursue life lived under the guidance of the Sermon on the Mount.  

Down through the years many Christians have experimented with living in community as described in Acts 2 and Acts 4. This community, according to Luke, gathered for the Apostles Teaching, for fellowship, for prayers, and to break bread.  You can see a pattern here that is relived in our worship services.  In liturgical circles this is called the service of Word and Sacrament.  Bonhoeffer wrote:
 “All Christian community exists between word and sacrament.  It begins and ends in worship.  It awaits the final banquet with the Lord in the kingdom of God.  A community with such an origin and such a goal is a perfect community, in which even the material things and good of this life are assigned their proper priority.”   [Discipleship (DBW, Vol. 4), 233]
Community exists between word and sacrament – preaching and sharing at the table. Within the bounds of this definition come prayers and fellowship.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Surviving a Son's Suicide (Ron Higdon) -- A Book Note


SURVIVING A SON'S SUICIDE: Finding Comfort and Hope in Faith, Friends, and Community,  By Ronald Higdon. Gonzalez, FL:  Energion Publications, 2014.  66 pages.

Ron Higdon is a retired pastor (although he continues to do interim ministries) and a member of the Academy of Parish Clergy (an organization of which I am also a member).  He is also a father whose son committed suicide. Writing as both father and as a pastor he has written a brief but compassionate book that speaks from the heart to those who also have suffered similar losses. 

As I write in the blurb I provided the publisher for the book:  
It is always difficult to lose a loved one to death.  When the loved one is your child, it is even more difficult, especially when death comes by suicide.  Ron Higdon is a pastor who has experienced this very tragedy, and with this book he shares his own grief and wisdom.  It is a wisdom he passes on to others, those who have experienced such a loss, those who want to be supportive, and those who are called to minister to and possibly within such a loss.  It must be a difficult story to tell, but Ron shares with us what is helpful and what is not.  Such a testimony will be a blessing to many.  

In the course of the book, Ron addresses the realities of one's grief, one's feeling of responsibility, and a road to healing.  So, if you or someone you know is a parent who has suffered from such a loss then I believe this is a book that will speak to the heart.  If you're a pastor Ron's pastoral insights will prove invaluable.  I invite you to pick up and read.   

Friday, November 14, 2014

Thinking Religion and Democracy in Dark Times -- Sightings (Corey D. B. Walker)

We live in age when the lines between the political and the theological are blurred. On all sides of issues, people are engaging the issues using religious/theological language. There is, of course, in such conversations a sense of ultimacy when theology is brought into the conversation. It is a question of which side God is on. And we all know which side God is on -- our side, of course. Corey Walker, the essayist for Sightings this week, points us to the debates in North Carolina between the religious right and the participants in Moral Mondays, an effort I might add led by a Disciple pastor, the Rev. William Barber, whose book Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation has just been released (review to be forthcoming).    Corey Walker takes us into the thick of the debate in this brief, but dense essay, suggesting that perhaps “ours is the age of the theological organization of political hatreds.”   I invite your thoughts in response -- how does faith engage the public square?


Thinking Religion and Democracy in Dark Times
by COREY D. B. WALKER
Thursday | Nov 13 2014
Moral Monday march on North Carolina's State Capitol (Feb. 2014)   Credit: James Willamor / Compfight.com
“I think we must believe it is possible...”
— James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
For many scholars and commentators, religion represents a unique challenge to democratic politics. But the challenge does not reside so much in a fundamental incompatibility between the two, but rather in how and in what ways do we make sense of the complex roles religion plays in public life.

The challenge is made all the more difficult during times of deep political tension which renders disagreements of political process, program or principle as foundational and absolute conflicts of ultimate concern. It is in these moments of broad and deep dissensus when we are bereft of a shared language to express our membership in a common political community let alone a collective sense of solidarity.

A significant challenge for any democratic polity is the manner in which religion diminishes our collective capacity to communicate in politically meaningfully ways. It is not only the incommensurability between differing faith claims that evades political adjudication that is the problem, it is also the manner in which political issues and problems are framed in religiously significant ways.

Political language imbued with the spirit of religion in this manner blurs the boundaries between religion and politics to such an extent that the political becomes synonymous with and an extension of the religious, even for those without an explicit religious claim or commitment.  Political positions are ultimate positions that frame the meaning and ultimate significance of life itself.

“Ours is the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds” are the words the French essayist, Julien Benda, used to describe the opening decades of the twentieth century in his 1927, hard-hitting polemic, La Trahison des Clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals). Perhaps the framing Benda offers can be instructive in the opening decades of the twenty-first century, namely “ours is the age of the theological organization of political hatreds.”

In our highly polarized times, we are not dealing with “religion and public life,” but rather we are experiencing a moment in which our political concerns are framed within a theological architecture that provides them meaning along a vertical axis such that politics are the means toward more fundamental theological ends.

Thus, to think religion and politics now requires a fundamental revision of the categories and constructs which scholars and commentators use so that we may gain the requisite critical capacity to understand the depth of this transformation in our time. The shift to the category of theology seeks to register the foundational character of the deep imbrication of religious logics and ideas with the languages and practices of politics and the political.

The theopolitical drama that is North Carolina politics stands as an exemplary instance of a deeper problematic that is our contemporary experience of religion colliding with democracy. In 2012, North Carolina elected a Republican governor and Republican legislators in great enough numbers to take control of both state houses and the executive branch for the first time since Reconstruction. Progressives and republicans, many of whom are inspired by their religious traditions, have been engaged in an ever escalating political contest over the fundamental role and function of government.

By the spring of 2013 the nation witnessed the emergence of “Moral Mondays.” Citizens from all walks of life have gathered on Mondays in front of the legislature and at venues across the state to protest against legislation—such as cuts to public education and changes to environmental protections—that have been passed or are being considered.   

The actions and debates by those allied with North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” and those on the right of the political spectrum reminds us that politics—while animated by political policies, programs, and principles—cast in religiously significant languages exceeds politics proper. It becomes a theological imperative for citizens to align the political with the ultimate ends of life itself.

In a deeply stratified and segregated society, political polarization is not just a function of partisanship. Rather, when the world of politics is understood as absolutely discontinuous with the meaning of life and existence, a properly political response must be theological.

And it is to the theological that we must critically attend if we are to understand the continuing evolution of America’s unique experience with democracy. The challenge thus becomes one of understanding the subtleties and complexities of public conversations framed in ultimate terms, which pursue ultimate guarantees purchased through the institutions of the political.

Thus we must begin again to think of the relation of religion and democracy not as mutually exclusive or antagonistic, but rather as the very condition of the possibility for understanding how the reconstitution of democracy and all that it entails must forge a new language of politics that facilitates the creation of fresh bonds of political community and civic solidarity.

If we do not forge a robust thinking which opens up new possibilities to coexist with visions of transcendence critically attentive to our disparate hopes and histories, the future of our democracy may find its best expression in the words of the African American spiritual, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
Resources:

McClain, Dani. “How the Moral Mondays ‘Fusion Coalition’ Is Taking North Carolina Back.” The Nation, July 1, 2014.

Severson, Kim. “Protests in North Carolina Challenge Conservative Shift in State Politics.” New York Times, June 11, 2013, US.

Buchsbaum, Herbert. “Budding Liberal Protest Movements Begin to Take Root in South.” New York Times, March 18, 2014, US.

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. New York: The Dial Press, 1963.

Benda, Julien. La Trahison des Clercs. Collection Les Cahiers Verts. Paris: Grasset, 1927.

Image Credit: James Willamor / Compfight.com (creative commons).
Author, Corey D. B. Walker, is Dean of the College and John W. and Anna Hodgin Hanes Professor of the Humanities at Winston-Salem State University. He has published widely in the area of African American and American social, political and religious thought and public life and has recently completed a new book project entitled Between Transcendence and History: An Essay on Religion and the Future of Democracy in America.
To comment, email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com.
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