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Top 20 Religious Books of 2015 - My Selections

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For the past several years I have named a Best Book and then the remaining ten or so that I thought were worthy of top billing.  This year I'm doing it a bit differently.  I'm laying out my top twenty books (all religious) that I read and were published during 2015. Most of these books were provided to me by the publisher for review. To them I give thanks.  Several of them especially challenged my thinking on matters theologically. Perhaps none more so than Grace Ji-Sun Kim'sEmbracing the Other.Each book, however, is worth reading closely.  For each book you can follow the link to the original review.   I realize there are many other great books out there that I didn't read, but here is my list -- Alphabetically:

Inclusive Marriage Services (Kimberly Bracken Long, et al) -- A Review

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INCLUSIVE MARRIAGE SERVICES:  A Wedding Sourcebook. Edited by Kimberly Bracken Long and David Maxwell. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xxvi + 211 pages.


Marriage and family continue to play a central role in our society, but marriage patterns are changing. It's not just the legalization of same-sex marriage, though that is a major change requiring a rethinking of our marriage ceremonies, there are many other factors as well. The wording of most ceremonies assume what we might call a traditional pattern that involves a male and a female, who are probably getting married for the first time, and are moving from their parents' home to a new life together. That pattern has long been abandoned—especially moving from the parents’ home. Today, couples are waiting longer, likely living together before marriage, might be remarrying after divorce, and could already have children. And that's just heterosexual couples! When coupled with the possibility of same-sex weddi…

Following the Star - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany Sunday

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Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me wor…

How Odd of God (William Willimon) -- A Review

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HOW ODD OF GOD: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching. By William H. Willimon. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xi + 193 pages.

How odd of God to choose human beings, like me, to share the word of God with the world. Or perhaps putting it a bit differently, what makes me think that my words from the pulpit can be a vehicle for God to speak to a congregation? The fact is, the effect of my words on a congregation isn’t in my hands. That doesn’t mean I don’t prepare or work hard at my craft. It simply means that once the words leave my mouth they are no longer mine.
William Willimon ponders this question in conversation Karl Barth, and Barth’s doctrine of election. The book How Odd of Godis the published form of Willimon’s 2014 Macleod lectures on Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Willimon writes in the opening paragraph of the book’s introduction that "election is Gods act whereby our lives are wrenched out of our control and we are commandeered to…

After Three Days -- A Sermon for Christmas 1C

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Luke 2:41-52


This seems to be a season of anniversaries, and believe it or not, it’s been twenty-five years since Macaulay Culkin spent Christmas Home Alone. If you saw that movie, an eight-year-old boy somehow got left behind when the family headed out for Christmas. Fortunately, due to the ingenuity of this child a home invasion is foiled. The movie raises the question: how do you leave your child behind? 
This morning we’ve heard another left behind story. The child in question is, of course, Jesus. According to Luke Jesus and his family have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When the family returns home to Nazareth, Jesus stays behind. It’s not until a day later that the family realizes that Jesus isn’t in the caravan. So, they head back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days of searching the city, Mary and Joseph finally find their lost child sitting in the Temple talking theology with the theology faculty.   
It probably would be a good idea to stop for a moment …

Treasured Words - A Sermon for Christmas/Christmas Eve

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Luke 2:1-20

For the past fifty years many of us have chosen to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special. As you may remember, Charlie Brown is struggling to understand the true meaning of Christmas. The commercial side of the season doesn’t hold any meaning for him. Finally, and after his failure to find the “proper” Christmas tree ends his attempt at directing the Christmas pageant, he cries out in near panic: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”At that point Linus the Theologian takes center stage and recounts the Christmas story as told by Luke. After coming off the stage, Linus says to him:  “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”
We’ve come here tonight because we want to take hold of this message shared with us by Linus the Theologian. Like Charlie Brown, we want to know what Christmas is really about.
Luke offers us the most recognizable version of the Christmas story. He tells us about a very pregnant Mary who accompanies her husband Joseph on …

Unto Us a Child Is Born

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For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 
(Isaiah 9:6-7)


Christmas Eve has arrived. Advent has brought us this far. We have walked in expectation and hope. Now, as the day progresses, we have opportunity to reflect on the promise of Isaiah. "A child has been for us."  This is the promise of God that we might see the revealing of God's presence in our midst. In the person of a child, of an infant, we will encounter the Prince of Peace. We have opportunity this day to enter into the promised realm of God, where justice and righteousness will be established.
As you meditat…

Tolerance and Truth(s) -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

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Last week a fracas erupted on the campus of evangelical bastion -- Wheaton College -- after a tenured professor was suspended for declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She made the statement as part of her effort to declare solidarity with Muslim Americans (by wearing a hijab) in the aftermath of San Bernardino. The professor teaches at a Christian college, but isn't a professional theologian. Nonetheless, she drew upon the words of Pope Francis and theologian Miroslav Volf. Martin Marty takes up the issue in this Christmas week edition of Sightings. Putting aside the occasion for the debate, it would be worth our while to have a conversation about truth and religious particularity. I would agree with her that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, following the logic of Miroslav Volf's presentations.  But, what about the particularities?  I invite a reading of the article and your thoughts in response.


Tolerance and Truth(s)
By MARTIN E. MARTY   DEC …

A Lost Child? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C

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Luke 2:41-52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching …

Embracing the Other (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) -- Review

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EMBRACING THE OTHER: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity).By Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. X + 182 pages.

                After the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, a counter movement emerged declaring that #AllLivesMatter. Whether by design or not, the partisans of #AllLivesMatter missed the point of the earlier movement (and others like it). While we would like to believe that all lives truly matter, time has shown us that too often the majority culture fails to recognize the value of lives that differ from their own. This is why the majority culture likes to speak of a melting pot, rather than a salad bowl or similar metaphor to express American diversity. The idea of the melting pot is one of assimilation, and to assimilation is to act as much as possible as if one is white, which the majority culture assumes is normative (superior).  What is true generally, is often true of the Christian community. There is the tend…

Out of Nowhere -- A Sermon for Advent 4C

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Micah 5:2-5a

O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.


These words written long ago by Phillips Brooks have long been a favorite of carolers. In our mind’s eye we imagine a small quiet town, where not much is happening. It’s not a place where you would expect something momentous to occur. And yet, the carol declares that the everlasting Light shines in its streets.
As Advent moves quickly toward its culmination in Christmas, we begin to see signs that the Everlasting Light is about to shine. We’ve been preparing these past several weeks for this day, and wait in hopeful expectation for the full revealing of this Light of God.

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People -- Sightings (Sarah Fredericks)

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Although not everyone is on board, there are clear signs that the earth is experiencing significant climate change. It also seems clear to most scientists that we humans are major contributors to this change. Last week a major climate summit ended with a historic agreement that commits the nations of the world to addressing this important problem. Climate change is a difficult concept to understand, because it's difficult to pinpoint its effects. Is the fact that it is unusually warm this December a sign?  Or, better, are changing migratory patterns of birds a sign? Sarah Fredericks reflects on the issue by showing how religious people have been at the forefront of advocating on this issue. I invite you to read and perhaps offer your thoughts on the question of what we can do as people of faith to make a difference?

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People
By SARAH E. FREDERICKS   DEC 17, 2015 Credit: lexaarts / Shutterstock.com Last Saturday, w…

It's All Mine - Or Is It?

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I am trying to stay out of the Donald Trump fray, at least for now, but I have been pondering why he has caught on with so many Americans. To be honest, I've been wondering about the sanity of my fellow citizens. Or perhaps we should wonder what's in the water.  Yesterday, as I was watching the news, I caught a bit of a Trump rally. I can't remember the statement exactly, but Trump essentially defined the movement he leads as one committed to keeping the other from getting my stuff.  That's my loose paraphrase of what I heard. 
Trump is a showman, but I don't think he would be leading the polls for so long if he wasn't tapping into something in the American psyche. There is a deep fear that if someone else has something then it comes at my expense. Thus, the anti-immigrant talk.  While I think there is racism in this, there is also this Nativist protectionist element. It's why many vote against their own interests. They forget that if another has insurance…

A Stable Lamp is Lighted (David Hurd)

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This Advent season, the Advent hymn that has stood out has been David Hurd's A Stable Lamp is Lighted. I have it in my Spotify Advent list, and wanted to share it. This is a different choir, but I think that it brings across the beauty of the piece. This version, which I found on You Tube, is offered by the choirs of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. I share it with you as the season of Advent closes and we make the final turn toward Christmas. May you be blessed by it.

Change in Church and State Relations - Sightings (Martin Marty)

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This week Martin Marty continues a conversation begun last week concerning religious liberty and the relationships of church and state. It is fifty years since the Catholic Church issued a declaration that essentially ended what Marty calls "Catholicdom," or the last vestiges of Catholic attempts to continue its hegemony in countries where it held a majority. Marty raises important points about the current church/state -- religious liberty debate. Whereas Catholics were once the problem, now its Muslims. He notes the growing tribalism in our midst, and suggests that maybe that Vatican II Decree and a much earlier challenge to Christendom -- the 1st Amendment of 1789, might have some value for us today. Take a read and offer your thoughts.
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Having trouble reading this email? Click here. Change in Church and State Relations
By MARTIN E. MARTY   DEC 14, 2015 Interior of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City State                           Credit: Gillmar / Shutterstock…

Blessed Are You Among Women! - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4C

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Luke 1:39-56 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  46 And Mary said,  “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.     Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,     and holy is his name. 50 His …

The Unexpected Christian Century (Scott Sunquist) -- A Review

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THE UNEXPECTED CHRISTIAN CENTURY:  The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000. By Scott W. Sunquist. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.  Xxiv + 213 pages.


            As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century, Christian leaders dubbed the incoming century as the "Christian Century." A journal bearing that name became one of the leading North American Christian voices (and continues to be an important journal to this day). At the time, even as Western colonial expansion was reaching its height, Christian missionary efforts from the United States and Europe were expanding the footprint of Christianity across the globe. So hopeful about the future of the Christian movements were mission leaders such as John R. Mott, that they foretold the churches that the world would be converted in their generation. While that confidence might have been misplaced, the Christian footprint has continued to expand. What was unexp…

God Is in Our Midst -- A Sermon for Advent 3C

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Zephaniah 3:14-20


Each Sunday of Advent we process into the sanctuary, led by a child carrying a lantern.  This year we’re singing “Emmanuel,” a song that reflects on a name that means “God with Us.” Advent is a lot like the season of Lent, because it forces us to slow down and look for God’s presence in our midst. This is an especially difficult task at this time of year, because there are lots of distractions. For instance, the Christmas buying season begins earlier each year, and the radio stations go all Christmas on Thanksgiving Day if not before. Then there’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, office parties and holiday concerts. Yes, there is much to do, and so little time to do it. So why bother with Advent? Why not go directly to Christmas? 
Since this is my first opportunity to preach during the Advent season, I decided to bring us up to date. Because I’m preaching from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, I thought we might look back at the lectionary readings from the proph…

Freedom in Covenant -- An excerpt

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The religious movement that gave birth to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) burst forth on the American frontier early in the nineteenth century. This fact is important if we are to understand the story of who the Disciples are and what they value. What has come to be known as the Stone-Campbell Movement was marked from the beginning by a frontier ethos of freedom, anti-institutionalism, and individualism. You might say that this is a denominational tradition with a libertarian streak. In addition to its frontier ethos, the movement has been marked by its roots in the Reformed tradition, for the founders of the movement were first Presbyterians before taking the steps that led to the creation of a new American religious movement. While Disciples are heirs of the Reformed tradition, they, along with the other two major branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, are marked by their points of resistance. This is especially true regarding demands for doctrinal conformity. As a res…

“Religious Freedom” After 50 Years? -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

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Religious liberty is a much debated issue in recent years. One need only think of the debates around contraception and the affordable care act. Of course, at this time of year we debate whether it is appropriate to sing Christmas carols in school. Then there is the question of whether the First Amendment applies to the majority religion or all religions. That Donald Trump (see my posting from yesterday) would offer a plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, suggest that Muslims could be surveiled, and mosques closed raises issues of religious liberty for whom. In this week's Sightings column Martin Marty lifts up one of the most significant decisions to come out of Vatican II. On December 7, 1965, fifty years ago this past Monday, the Council voted by a landslide to set aside settled Catholic doctrine that held that in countries with a Catholic majority, Catholics should be privileged over other faith traditions. That this was rejected by the church set forth a new day in r…

Loving My Muslim Neighbor

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Standing at the center of the Christian faith, as well as Judaism from which we emerged, are two commands.  First love God and second love one's neighbor as one's self. To flesh this out, we read in 1 John that "those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20). Now, I could limit my love for my neighbor to those who are part of my faith community, but in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus makes it clear that such a narrowing of vision is not true to the vision of God (Luke 10:25-37).

God Has No Grandchildren - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3C

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Luke 3:7-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, an…