Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why Talk about Evolution in Church? Creation and Christianity

Why talk about evolution in Church? Why not? If evolutionary theory poses a challenge to the Christian faith and our understanding of God, wouldn't it be dereliction of duty for a preacher not to talk about it from the pulpit. This is especially true at a time when science as a discipline is being called into question by religious people. I'm not a scientist. I'm a theologian and a pastor. There is much about science I don't understand, but I can't run from it. So, here is the fourth and final video excerpt from my conversation about such matters with fellow authors from Energion Publications. I invite you view all four and ponder the message. I also invite you to purchase and read my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin, (Energion, 2013).  Finally, I invite you to participate in the annual Evolution Weekend sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project.  That event is observed on the weekend closest to Darwin's birthday. I should note here that this will be the tenth such observance, and I have been part of it since the beginnings in 2006. So, if you feel called, pick up a copy of my book, as it will be of great assistance in this effort of wrestling with evolution in church.    

Friday, January 30, 2015

Beware the God of the Gaps -- Creation and Christianity

For the past several centuries, Christian theology has seemingly been on the run from science. We try to stay a step ahead of science by filling in the gaps with God.  But it doesn't seem to work. This is the third of four responses to questions on Creation and Christianity that I gave as part of a panel of authors from Energion Publications.  I invite you to check out all of them.  This video addresses specifically the question of God and the Gaps.  I also invite you to check out my book that emerged out of my participation in the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday.  It is entitled: Worshiping with Charles Darwin(Energion, 2013).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

God Is Continually Creating

If we assume that evolutionary theory, which itself is continually being updated, tells us how the universe came into existence and developed over time, where does God fit? In this second except from a larger conversation about Creation and Christianity hosted by Henry Neufeld, the Publisher/Owner of Energion Publications, I add my thoughts on the idea that God is engaged in continual creation. Rather than taking Genesis 1 as one off event, might we see it as an invitation to consider how God continues to be engaged in the act of creation?

My involvement in the conversation stems from my involvement in the Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Sunday (now at ten years) and the publication in 2013 of my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin (Energion, 2013). 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Why Celebrate Evolution Sunday?

Can one believe in evolution and be a Christian?  Indeed, can churches set aside a Sunday each year with the express purpose of highlighting the compatibility of a rich and deep faith in God with an acceptance of the validity of the theory of evolution?  Here is my answer as shared in a conversation set up by the publisher of my book Worshiping with Charles Darwin, (Energion, 2013).  

Evolution Sunday (Evolution Weekend) is an outreach effort sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project, 2015 marks the tenth anniversary of this effort, which I've been part of from the very beginning.  

This is the first of four excerpts, which I invite you to consider what it means to worship God in the company of Charles Darwin.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

True Authority -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4B

Mark 1:21-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.


                Fred Craddock titled one of his books on preaching As One Without AuthorityIt is a book that explores inductive preaching, a form of preaching that invites the hearer to enter into the story – both biblical and contemporary.  The point of inductive preaching is not to offer a thesis, offer proofs, and then ask for a decision. Whatever authority that the preacher has is more indirect than direct.  Inductive preaching has become popular in recent years in part because preachers have discovered that we no longer can expect our “audience” to simply accept what we have to say.  We are ones without authority.

Of course, preachers have always faced the problem of authority. That is why we like to quote others from Barth to Craddock.  The scholastic method of doing theology that dominated the medieval western Catholic Church assumed this to be true. You lay out your proposition, then array the authorities pro and con, and formulate a conclusion based on those authorities. 

The same was true of the rabbis of Jesus’ day.  The rabbis would quote the experts so as to bolster their argument.  Jesus, it would seem, did not follow this pattern.  He didn’t quote Barth and Calvin, Wesley and Pope Francis.  He simply taught the people from the scriptures, and the people were astounded by what they heard.  He upset the apple cart, overturning, it would seem, their understandings of the things of God. 

In this particular story Jesus goes down to Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, and since it’s the Sabbath he goes in with his disciples to share in the synagogue service.  It would appear that Jesus didn’t just sit down and listen to the local preacher. Instead, he seems to have gone right up to the pulpit and began teaching.  How often did he do such a thing?  Surely the synagogue leaders weren’t happy about this interloper coming in and pushing the normal preacher aside.  I know, I’m reading some of this into the story, but Mark is so sparse with details it begs for some creative interaction. 

So, what do we make of this event?  We don’t know what Jesus said.  Mark doesn’t record his message.  It probably doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point.  Instead, it would seem that the point here is that Jesus got up to talk and the people were amazed by what he said.  

In our churches it’s unlikely that a stranger would be allowed to simply walk into the church, enter the pulpit, and begin teaching.  It’s quite likely that the police would be called.  There are protocols and rules to be followed.  There is the issue of credentials.  I am an ordained minister, with the requisite theological degrees and training in homiletics.  In my tradition we affirm the priesthood of believers and historically have given less credence to credentials, but credentials are still important.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be discerning about who enters the pulpit.  There is a lot of bad theology out there.  I’m not saying it is necessarily “heretical,” I’m just saying it has dangerous consequences. So, churches are right to be careful about who gets to teach and preach.  We might not be comfortable with Jesus getting up and preaching – especially if we didn’t have a sense of who he was (or is) beforehand. Sure, if I know Jesus is coming to visit, I’d be glad to let him take the pulpit.  I’m all for pulpit guests – but uninvited ones, I’m not so sure about them!  But when he did start preaching, people recognized that he “taught with authority.”

There is another surprising element in this story.  As Jesus is teaching a man interrupts him. While the synagogue goers are dumbfounded by Jesus’ teaching, this man, whom Mark tells us has an “unclean Spirit,” seems to know exactly who Jesus is.  He cries out at Jesus – I know who you are, you’re the holy one of God.  The clean folks don’t know who Jesus is, but the unclean man does. Why is this? In fact, why does a man who shouldn’t even be in the synagogue recognize Jesus for who he is? The man himself, being unclean, shouldn’t be in a sacred space.  William Placher provides us some context for the man.  He writes that “like the children or mentally people we often try to keep out of church, he promptly disrupts by yelling his head off.”  Isn’t that the way it often is – the ones who disrupt get it and we don’t.  Placher goes to say that “Evil spirits never have any problem knowing who Jesus is; ‘the demons believe—and shudder” (Jas. 2:19)” (Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible),pp. 37-38). The spirit within the man knows Jesus’ purpose—to overcome the evil that convulses human experience. Perhaps the spirit believes by naming Jesus for who he is, the spirit have control.

Jesus answers by telling the spirit to be silent.  It’s not that Jesus was upset that his sermon was being interrupted. We all have to deal with that once in a while.  We just pause and wait for things to calm down.  But Jesus takes immediate action. He tells the spirit to be silent. Remember that in Mark Jesus is seeking to keep his identity quiet. It’s a need to know basis. This synagogue crowd didn’t need to know, quite yet. Timing is everything.  At this the spirit releases the man and the people are once again amazed.  They wonder – who is he?  What is this new teaching? Despite Jesus’ best efforts to keep things silent, word goes out across the land. It will amaze some and frighten others.

This takes us back to the question of authority.  We live in an age that questions most forms of authority. Many are jaded and others simply skeptical. Governments come and go and seem to focus more on keeping power than touching lives. People have lost faith in the institutional church. Too many scandals have rocked it. Survival mode has taken hold. We wonder what the future holds. We who are clergy can get nervous about job security and pensions.  Yes, we (and our families) are just like everybody else.  We get nervous when new voices start to speak – whether it is Jesus or the unclean spirit. We want to build fortresses.  We want to draw lines. But Jesus comes and tears down the walls and erases the lines. So, where do we stand?  Are we ready to follow this teacher on a journey that in Mark leads to a cross?  And are we willing to take this journey, knowing that none of us has any true authority?  Any authority that is present comes from the one who leads us. And the word will spread!  

Monday, January 26, 2015

RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP (Stevens and Waschevski) -- Review

RHYTHMS OF WORSHIP: The Planning and Purpose of LiturgyBy John G. Stevens and Michael Waschevski.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  Xiii + 76 pages.

Christian worship comes in many different forms and styles. It can be rich and luxurious or austere. It can be joyful or somber. It takes on different guises in different eras. The Liturgical Renewal Movement, which burst forth from Vatican II and the ecumenical conversations of the Consultation on Church Union in the 1960s led to significant changes in both Roman Catholic and Protestant worship. On top of that the Charismatic Movement brought into the mainstream the exuberant worship of Pentecostalism. Added to that was more attentiveness to ethnic varieties. Then there is the whole discussion about music – whether we should go with praise bands or stick with the organ (as if every church had an organ a generation ago).  The result is that today there has been much cross-pollination and more diversity than ever. So, what should vital worship look and sound like? 

Those of us who are charged with planning and leading worship have a vested interest in these questions.  We must balance theological concerns with cultural ones. There are innumerable pressures on worship leaders – often between those who advocate keeping to traditional forms, which often date back to the 1950s, or embrace new forms, which date from the 1970s and 1980s.  Some churches have abandoned Christian symbols and music and focus their attention on the unchurched, while others seek to reclaim ancient forms.  As we engage in this process, we always must be aware of our own biases.   

One of the challenges churches face is education about worship.  We often don’t have accessible guides that will help us have a conversation that broaden perspectives on the topic. Many books and texts are heavily academic in tone and not accessible. What we need is a brief and thoughtful guide that is accessible and can be used to stimulate conversation about worship elements and patterns. Rhythms of Worship is just such a resource.  Brief and readable -- with discussion questions -- the authors, both Presbyterian pastors who have been actively engaged in liturgical and musical questions within the Presbyterian Church, take the readers on a tour of the basic elements present in Christian worship, starting with order, along with introduction to the liturgical seasons, and the use of music and arts.  Yes, in just a few pages, we cover all the major bases of Christian worship.

The authors understand that there is much about worship that lies beyond our control. After all, the Spirit is involved!  However, there are many things that we do control, and they require careful planning and execution. You might chalk that up to the Presbyterian mantra to do things "decently and in order," but they are correct. There is no place for sloppy, ill-planned worship. It is not appropriate to blame the Spirit for our inattention to planning and proper execution.  Vital worship is rooted in excellence, and excellence requires thought and diligence. It is important that elements fit together. Music and readings should be selected and arranged to help facilitate encounters with God.  Careful planning allows us to be more in tune with the Spirit. 

The book is laid out along fourteen brief chapters, which focus on liturgical order, liturgical elements, the role of music and arts, as well as discussions of the movement through the liturgical/church year. In the course of the conversation they show how Word and Sacrament fit together. There is a beginning and there is an ending. Attention to the lectionary and the liturgical year help worshipers engage the person of Jesus Christ.  In the conversation about music, they remind us that style and instrumentation are not the primary issues (though worship wars are fought over them). In fact, quoting from Tom Long, they note that vital congregations will be marked by their use of excellent and eclectic forms of music. Excellence is stressed -- musicians and leaders should practice and know the music. Since we have such a wonderful array of music available to us, they suggest we take advantage of it. That can be overwhelming, but also exciting (I am counted among those who enjoy an eclectic variety!). 

The book closes by asking and addressing what might be the most essential question: "Is Worship important?" Does it matter in the larger scheme of things? It's not the elements themselves that are of utmost importance, but the act of worship itself. By affirming the centrality of worship, we heed a "correction of the view that the church is just a voluntary organization for the improvement of society" (68). Whatever work or service we do, worship grounds us in the work of God. They write: "To be the church is to be formed by the church's tradition of a life of faith through things we do individually and together, such as immersing ourselves in the message and thought world of the Scriptures and participating in the sacramental life of the church" (p. 68).

I can see this little book being used in a variety of settings. Since it includes discussion questions, it could simply be used in adult education. It would be of use to worship committees and other leadership groups. While at times I found myself disagreeing with the authors, more often than not my points of disagreement weren’t philosophical or theological but in emphasis.  Coming from a different denominational tradition, my sense of order at times differs, and thus I resisted the “should.”  At the same time, I appreciate the authors speaking to the complaint that the church is full of gray-hairs.  It is true that many of our congregations have a great number of older people in them, but maybe there’s something positive about this fact that can be celebrated.

It is apparent that we need to have serious conversations about worship, and whether it has relevance for our lives. While fellowship and service and education are important elements of the Christian life, does not what we do as church center in our worship of God?  Since increasing numbers of people in our society have little or no contact with the church, many have not learned simply by participating what Christian worship looks like. They need to have opportunity to ask questions and explore what it is we’re doing.  In all of these things, this little book should prove helpful. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Post-Christian Book Tour -- Christian Piatt in Metro-Detroit

It Begins Today, so join us if you can:  

Metro-Detroit Event – January 25-26, 2015
Author and thought leader among the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Christian Piatt will be visiting Metro-Detroit on the weekend of January 25-26. Hosted by Central Woodward and First Presbyterian Church of Troy, there will be several opportunities to hear and engage with Christian on the question of the future of Christianity in what has come to be known as a “post-Christian age.”
CHRISTIAN PIATT is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. Piatt has been featured on NPR's Morning EditionThe Washington PostHuffington Post, and Sojourners. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of the Banned Questions book series, including Banned Questions About the Bible andBanned Questions About Jesus.

Meet with Christian Piatt at these events:
  • ·        Preaching
            January 25, 2015 – 10:30 AM
            Central Woodward Christian Church
3955 W. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI

  • ·        Presentation and Book Signing
January 25, 2015 – 3:00 PM
First Presbyterian Church
4328 Livernois, Troy, MI

  • ·        Pub Theology Conversation
January 26, 2015 – 7 PM
Joe Kool’s Restaurant
1835 E. Big Beaver Road, Troy, MI

“Christian Piatt is one of the smartest and most provocative young voices we have.”
Jim Wallis, President and Founder, Sojourners

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Relevancy of the Trinity?

Christians have traditionally named God as Trinity -- One substance, three persons. In the Creeds we name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we have seen the masculine nature of this confession poses certain problems, especially if these names are taken literally -- so that God is literally a father and literally a son, with the Holy Spirit's nature a bit ambiguous. Some attempts at reimagining the Trinity have either left us with a modalistic vision (Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer) or perhaps more often with Tritheism (three gods).  Perhaps because we struggle with naming God, the Trinity slips into irrelevancy for most Christians.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Remembering Marcus Borg

By now many readers of this blog will have heard through social media that Marcus Borg died on Wednesday.  He was only 72, but apparently died after a lengthy illness.  Like many I have found Borg to be an important companion in my faith journey, even if I often disagreed with his methodology and sometimes his conclusions.  From my own readings and through conversations with those who knew him well, I discerned him to be a man of faith, a man of humility, and a man of compassion.  

I have read many of his books, and have offered reviews of many of them (just search for them on the blog).  I first encountered him during the early 90s. I made use of his books while teaching at Manhattan Christian College -- a rather conservative institution.  I was offering a senior seminar on Jesus (I was going to say Jesus Seminar, but didn't want to confuse things) to Topeka to watch via video the proceedings of the "Jesus at 2000" conference, which Borg organized and appeared in.  I also had them read Borg's book Jesus: A New Vision, the book that put him on the map. While the students didn't gravitate to his interpretation they found him challenging, strangely attractive, and enjoyable to read.    

He is famous for stating that he "takes the Bible seriously, even if not literally." I appreciate that, though I might take some things more "literally" than would he.  But once again the message that he offered was one of a humble agnosticism on ultimate questions.  It wasn't evasion, it was simply recognition that there are some things beyond our comprehension.  While I have never been a fan of the Jesus Seminar, which he was a leader of, he always seemed more generous in his responses to critics than some of the others.  

While he was a scholar to be reckoned with, most of all he was a person of faith.  He was a liberal, but not just in his theology.  He was liberal in his spirit toward others. His response to those who rejected belief in God is always worth considering -- when an atheist described their conception of God, he would most often note that he didn't believe in that God either!  He will be missed going forward, but his legacy and witness will continue on.

May God add blessings to his memory.   

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wounded By Truth--Healed By Love (David Cartwright) -- Review

WOUNDED BY TRUTH - HEALED BY LOVE: Reflections on the Paradoxical Teachings of Jesus By David R. Cartwright. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2014. Ix + 110 pages.

The teachings of Jesus are not always easy to understand.  It’s not just the chronological distance between our age and the first century. Even the disciples of Jesus struggled to comprehend what he had to say. It’s not so much what he had to say as to the implications of what he taught. He often challenged cherished understandings of reality and even what many would call “common sense” reasoning.

Preachers, like me, often struggle with the question of how to engage the texts in ways that are true to its message while communicating that message in a new and different context. Because Jesus’ teachings are in the words from the title often paradoxical, they can be and often are manipulated by preachers who seek to support their agenda by claiming Jesus’ support. I probably am guilty of this myself, though I try to restrain that tendency within me. 

One preacher who has found a way of engaging the text of the Gospels in a way that honors the text, recognizes the paradoxical nature of Jesus’ teaching, and can effectively communicate a message for today is David Cartwright.  David is a retired Disciples of Christ preacher, though most of the sermons were preached at the church he served prior to his retirement. Much of the preparatory work for these sermons emerged out of a sabbatical taken in 2004, a portion of which was spent in Cambridge, England. Having spent a portion of my own sabbatical in the rival university city of Oxford, I appreciate the images and stories that emerge out of the time spent in England. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Theology Come of Age

At its base, theology is simply God-Talk. It is the process by which we seek to speak of the incomprehensible God. Throughout human history we as a species have tried to picture God so that we might control God. We create idols and place them in our human built temples (both ancient and modern) so that we might own them. By owning them, we can get whatever they stand for to do our bidding.  But is it not time to grow up, to come of age, and let go of this need to control the divine?  

I raise the topic in response to an important message from Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ, whose book She Who Is I have been reading and interacting with on the blog and in sermons.  With a sermon upcoming on the first Sunday of February that will consider the nature of God's revelation as embodied, I want to share this word from  Elizabeth Johnson.

Theology will have come of age when the particularity that is highlighted is not Jesus' historical sex but the scandal of his option for the poor and marginalized in the Spirit of his compassionate, liberating Sophia-God. That is the scandal of particularity that really matters, aimed as it is toward the creation of a new order of wholeness in justice. Toward that end, feminist theological speech about Jesus the Wisdom of God shifts the focus of reflection off maleness and onto the whole theological significance of what transpires in the Christ event. Jesus in his human, historical specificity is confessed as Sophia incarnate, revelatory of the liberating graciousness of God imaged as female; women as friends of Jesus-Sophia, share equally with men in his saving mission throughout time and can fully represent Christ, being themselves, in the Spirit, other Christs. Thee are steps on the way to a community of equals interrelated in genuine mutuality, in theory as well as practice. (She Who Is, p. 167).
Johnson writes this from the context of being Roman Catholic were the priests are seen as "vicars of Christ," that is -- they are priestly stand-ins for Jesus. Because he is male, the stand-ins should be male.  But as Johnson points out, the particularity related to Jesus that should stand out is not his maleness, but his message and commitment to stand with the poor and the marginalized. As women and children are numbered among the impoverished at  greater numbers than men, surely the Christ event is embodied in the lives and experiences of women as well as men.  

Theology come of age is a theology that is willing to embrace the message that Christ draws into the salvatory process male and female equally, bringing mutuality and equality to our relationships and opportunities.   

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Gathering Kingdom Preachers --Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3B

Mark 1:14-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


                The story is told, perhaps it’s apocryphal, that my grandmother spotted me preaching in my crib, and she told my mother that I would grow up to be a preacher.  While I spent my youth as first an acolyte and then a lay reader in the Episcopal Church, I took a while before I caught hold of that vision. I never intended to be a pastor. I went to seminary with the intention of being a college professor.  I was going to teach church history and preach on occasion, but not as a full-time pastor.  It is interesting how life works out. My dreams of an academic career eventually gave way to a recognition of a call to preach the good news of God’s realm. 

                There is a progression to Mark’s story of Jesus.  First came John and he preached a message of repentance.  He prepared the way for the kingdom to emerge. He wasn’t the one who would inaugurate it, but he would pave the way.  Then, Jesus came on the scene. After his baptism and his temptation, he took up his calling as a preacher.  The time had come for the Realm of God to be revealed. Whether or not the world was ready, God was ready.  So, Jesus proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Remembering Martin Luther King

Across the nation there are those who are stopping to remember an icon of the Civil Rights Movement.  I use the word icon intentionally.  The Civil Rights Movement is broader than Dr. King, but he gave voice to the movement in a way that caught the ears of the nation.  His assassination at the age of 39 helped cement his status as symbol of a movement that transformed the American psyche. He played a significant role in the passage of two key pieces of legislation that guaranteed certain rights that had been previously denied to people of color, but it took a willing partner in President Johnson and leaders in Congress to make that happen.  With the election of President Obama, some in the United States felt they could declared Dr. King's dream fulfilled.  But, in the years since President Obama's election we have discovered that such a declaration of victory was much too premature.  

On this Day of observance of Dr. King's Birth, let us not forget that the journey is not yet complete. In fact, many of the protections enacted a generation earlier are being dismantled.  Dr. King was committed to changing the status of African Americans, but he was also committed to ending poverty and ending war.  It is important to remember that he lost allies in the Civil Rights Movement by opposing the Vietnam War.  At the time of his death he was in the process of devising a new movement that would lift up the poor -- no matter their color.  Once again he risked losing allies.  

I write this as a middle class white man.  I have never had to worry about being stopped by a police officer simply because of my color.  I've never had the "talk" with my son. I am aware that I cannot simply "step into the shoes" of another.  I can listen and learn, and that I shall do.  

What I have heard lately is much despair. There is a sense that we have taken great steps backward in recent years. We are more divided than we had been in many years. We have watched as young black men have been killed both by the police and by vigilantes. We have seen how economic disparity has impacted people of color disproportionately. We have heard that the growing unemployment among young people of color is feeding a sense of despair.  It looks dark. I feel it, but am not always sure how to be engaged.  But perhaps we can gain some needed insight and perspective by reflecting on these words shared the night before Dr. King's murder. He reminds us in the sermon/speech of an earlier stabbing that had threatened his life -- had he sneezed he would have surely died.  He didn't sneeze and he went on to participate in many important steps toward liberation.  He looked forward to continuing efforts -- should that be offered to him.  But, that night, perhaps sensing that the end was coming, he shared his contentment that whether or not he made it to the promised land, he had been blessed to be part of the journey.  So, even as we may feel that there is no hope, perhaps these words can instill in us a renewed  hope for tomorrow.

 Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  [King Jr, Martin Luther (2013-08-20). The Essential Martin Luther King, Jr.: "I Have a Dream" and Other Great Writings (King Legacy)
(Kindle Locations 2956-2957). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.] 


Note on image:   © Martin Luther King of Georgia (1929-1968),  Brother John Lentz, OFM, Courtesy of Trinity Stores,  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Perfect Love Embodied -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

1 John 4:7-12

When I was in high school, we often sang a song in Bible study that drew from the Song of Solomon.  It went like this:

I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.
His banner over me is Love. (Song of Songs 6:3; 2:4)

Who is the beloved whose banner over me is love? If you read the Song of Solomon in a straightforward way, you’ll discover that this is a most explicit love song. But, down through the ages, Christians have read this song allegorically to describe Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the Beloved, and those over whom the banner of love flies belongs to him.     

In one of the weddings at which I officiated, the Scripture text was taken from the Song of Solomon. Among the words shared that day were these:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. 
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it 
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Two people in love, committing themselves to a life together as partners in marriage, can surely sing this to each other.  But can this song also describe our relationship with God? Is the love of God so strong that nothing, not even flood waters can quench it? Is God’s love for us even stronger than death itself?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jesus' Identity in a Multi-Polar Anthropology

In a previous posting I raised the question of Jesus' maleness and what that said about God.  I made She Who Is, I am currently reading.
use of the reflections on this matter made by Elizabeth Johnson. I want to press beyond this just a bit in a brief posting, again making reference to the work of Elizabeth Johnson, whose book

In a chapter in the book entitled "Jesus-Sophia," Johnson makes the point that while the New Testament speaks of Jesus both in terms of Word (logos) and Wisdom (Sophia), we have chosen to emphasize the incarnation of Logos (John 1:14) while pushing aside the witness to Jesus as Wisdom incarnate as well.  As Paul proclaims, Christ is both the "power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:24).  

Moving further, regarding the question of whether maleness is determinative of Christness, Johnson suggests the adoption of a multi-polar anthropology that moves beyond the male-female dualism that we use to define humanity.  We are male and female, but we are not just male and female.  My body has something to do with my identity, but I am more than my body or  my gender.

So what does this have to do with our Christology?  Elizabeth Johnson writes:

A multipolar anthropology allows Christology to integrate Jesus' maleness using interdependence of difference as a primary category, rather than emphasizing sexuality in an ideological, distorted way. Amid a multiplicity of differences Jesus' maleness is appreciated as intrinsically important for his own personal historical identity and the historical challenge of his ministry, but not theologically determinative of his identity as the Christ nor normative for the identity of the Christian community. Story, symbol, and doctrine then assume an emancipatory gestalt. [She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discoursep. 156]
The human Jesus lived and breathed and died as a Jewish male. That is part of his identity, but theologically it is not determinative of his Christic role as the Logos/Sophia of God.  Maleness does not define God nor the Christ, though the Christ became known to us in Jesus, a man from Galilee. The good news here for us is that in taking human form, the Christ of God takes on full humanity in all of its differences and reconciles us in our differences to God.

Note on image:   © Christ Sophia, Brother Michael Reyes, OFM, Courtesy of Trinity Stores,  

Friday, January 16, 2015

God, the Christ, and the Maleness of Jesus

Sculpture of the Christa
at Emmanuel College, University of Toronto
As a Christian, I am by definition a follower of Jesus the Christ. With Peter, I confess him to be the Christ/Messiah and the Son of the Living God (Matthew 16:16).  Whatever else I might believe, it is filtered through this confession.

When speaking of Jesus I have in mind a particular person who hailed from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was born and lived and died as a Jewish man.  He lived in a particular part of the world in a very specific age in history. His cultural and social realities were very different from my own.  Despite the differences in culture and context, I look to him for a revelation of who God might be.  After all, John declares that the Word of God has taken on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).  

As I'm considering the question of the ways in which we speak of God (for we cannot fully know God in God's essence, which is mystery), I have to take into consideration the images and analogies that we use to speak of the unspeakable.  One of the questions that the particularity of Jesus' human identity poses to us is whether his maleness is a reflection on the nature of God.  

When we confess Jesus to be Lord and Savior of the World, we have in mind his humanity, which is expressed as a first century Jewish male.  But is it his maleness or his humanity that is most revelational of the Christ of God?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Jesus Christ (Alister McGrath) -- A Review

JESUS CHRIST: A Guide for Study and Devotion (The Heart of Christian Faith) By Alister E. McGrath. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  IX + 117 pages.

                “Who do you say that I am?” asked Jesus. Peter answered: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). Whatever it means to be a Christian, Peter’s confession factors in as the central confession of faith. While Christians believe many different things, there is a common consensus that Jesus is at the center. Of course, that simple statement offered by Peter offers plenty of room for interpretation.

                Many a Christian theologian (professional or not) have offered a take on the question of who this Jesus might be. He could be a prophet, a healer, a good and decent man, a teacher, or the very incarnation of God. Among those who would want to lift up the premise that Jesus is the incarnation of God, who has revealed the true identity of God in his life, is Alister McGrath, Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion and at Oxford University and Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. Before coming back to Oxford he was Professor of Theology, Ministry, and Education, along with serving as Head of the Centre for Theology, Religion, and Culture at King’s College London.  Beyond his academic posts, McGrath is an Anglican priest and is counted among England’s evangelical community.  An accomplished historical theologian with a background in the sciences, he has proven himself to be a prolific author writing on numerous areas of theological interest.  He is also a devotee of C.S. Lewis, and like Lewis, he has made a name for himself by bringing theological discourse to the general reader.       

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Come and See -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2B

John 1:43-51 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” 49 Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”


                “Come and See.” That’s what Philip told Nathaniel after Jesus called him to be a follower.  The season of Epiphany (Ordinary Time) is a moment during which we pay attention to the ways in which God is manifested in Jesus.  Led by the star we come to pay homage to the one in whom God is made known (Matthew 2:1-2).  Those who follow the star, who see and hear the good news, have the opportunity to bear witness to the one who has come into the world as the revelation of God. 

                It has become a well-known fact that many Christians find it difficult to share their faith.  Several years ago Martha Grace Reese published several books that share the news that mainline Protestants struggle with the “e-word.”  We tend to keep our religious beliefs to ourselves. For one thing, we consider religious beliefs to be private, but we also have an aversion to offending others. Thus, religion, like politics remains off-limits in polite company. But, can we keep silent about that which defines our very being?   

                When Jesus went to Galilee, after his time at the Jordan where he had called Peter and Andrew to join him, he added to his band by inviting Philip, who happened to be from the same town as Peter and Andrew, to join them.  Perhaps Peter and Andrew introduced Jesus to Philip. After Jesus invited Philip to join him as a disciple, Philip decided he had to share the news with Nathaniel, who might have been a brother or a friend. Philip told Nathaniel the good news.  We have found the one the Scriptures talk about.  He is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.  Philip is excited.  He’s ready to join up.  He’s willing to spread the news.  But he meets a skeptic in Nathaniel. How often is this story – we’ve got good news to share but the one we want to share it with is seemingly unimpressed.  Perhaps Nathaniel has heard this kind of news before!

                In the case of Nathaniel, at least in John’s story, the issue seems to be Jesus’ hometown.  Nathaniel and Philip come from Bethsaida, along the Sea of Galilee.  Nathaniel, like many people are wont to do, isn’t always impressed by people from rival communities.  Apparently he’s not a big booster of Nazareth’s virtues – how can “anything good come out of Nazareth.”  But, perhaps it’s not normal community rivalry (growing up in Klamath Falls, we looked with disdain at our rivals in Medford).  Nor is it necessarily that Nathaniel is thinking of the moral virtues of Nazareth’s citizenry.  Perhaps the issue is where Nazareth fits in Jewish Messianic expectations. As a community Nazareth was nothing special – just a small village lying near the never mentioned capitol of Galilee, Sepphoris.  There was nothing in Scripture that connected it with messianic expectations. Surely, one should be looking to someone from a place more significant than Nazareth to be the redeemer of Israel, which may explain the importance that Luke and Matthew give to Bethlehem. We don’t expect great things to come from small insignificant communities (though history is littered with examples).  Nathaniel expresses the same skepticism that many of us have applied to this story.  But Philip isn’t deterred by Nathaniel’s less than enthusiastic embrace of his message.  He just says – “come and see.”  Let your eyes and ears determine whether or not I’m right about this man who is teaching in the area. Isn’t that the point of evangelism – not to convince with arguments but simply invite people to come and see what this faith is all about?

                Nathaniel may have come with Philip reluctantly, but his encounter with Jesus would be mind-altering.  Jesus gets his attention with a comment about his being an Israelite without deceit. Nathaniel’s response appears at first to be a bit cocky:  “Where did you get to know me?”  How did you know I’m an honest man who tells the truth (as I see it)?  Part of me wants to read Jesus’ statement as a piece of sarcasm, which elicits the sense that Nathaniel might be a bit taken by himself.  Whatever the nature of Nathaniel’s sense of his own righteousness, Jesus seems to answer rather straightforwardly:  “I saw you under a fig tree.”  I saw you talking with Philip a long way off.  With this John introduces us to a Jesus who is not bound by at least some human limitations.  When we read these words, we need to read them in light of the earlier prologue. Jesus may be fully human, but there is something very different about him. He is the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14).  He can see things that you and I cannot. 

                With this response, the once skeptical Nathaniel is immediately converted.  He had agreed to Philip’s invitation, and now he understands why Philip was excited.  This man standing before him had to be the promised one.  Filled with awe, Nathaniel addresses Jesus with three important titles:  Rabbi, Son of God, and King of Israel.  He affirms that the one whose origins are in Nazareth is now worthy of veneration. 

That Nathaniel recognizes him to be a teacher is not surprising.  The more significant – long term – titles are Son of God and King of Israel. These are messianic titles, reflecting John’s belief that for all his humanness Jesus embodies the divine presence.  He is the chosen one who represents God and will rule over God’s chosen people. 

                Jesus’ response to Nathaniel’s confession of faith in him is once again intriguing.  It is almost as if Jesus is saying to him – well, you’re impressed by my ability to see you from afar, just wait till you see the angels ascending and descending on “the Son of Man” (another title, and here we probably should be taking our clues from Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man).  There is certainly an allusion here to the story of Jacob’s ladder, where Jacob has a dream where he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels descending and ascending. In response Jacob declares:  “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” Jesus seems to be inviting Nathaniel to come and witness the ongoing connection between heaven and earth that is centered in his own being.  Jesus is the one who serves as the “gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:10-17). 

Nathaniel came to Jesus as a skeptic and followed him as a disciple, for even if he didn’t understand it all, he knew that he had found the one he was looking for.  But even more than that, he had been found by Jesus.  

Monday, January 12, 2015

Analogies, Metaphors and the Incomprehensible God

How might this picture speak metaphorically of God? 

How do we speak of God?  That is the question I'm asking in a series of sermons during this season sermon that began with "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" and finished with a conversation about feminist theology.  Together with the sermon I've been posting pieces on our God-Talk, and will continue doing so over the next few weeks.
of Epiphany.  

In this posting I want to raise the question of theological language.  If God is incomprehensible -- that is, we do not have access to God in God's essence.  However, God is not without witnesses.  We see God in God's effects.  God has left us clues that allow us to envision God.  It is important that we acknowledge that we cannot speak in a univocal manner.  Whatever words and images we use are not one and the same as God.  Nor are left with ambiguous/equivocal language.  But we can use analogy and metaphor to speak of God in a way that is sensible and comprehensible.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Speaking of God Sermon Series #1)

Luke 12:4-7  

Several decades before the American Revolution, a preacher got up to preach a sermon that has lived on in infamy.  Some of you may have read it as a high school student.  Perhaps you liked what you read, but I expect that it didn’t resonate with most of you. That preacher was named Jonathan Edwards and the context was the First Great Awakening that shook the American colonies in the 1740s.  It was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

You might think that a sermon like this was preached by a backwoods fire and brimstone preacher.  The fact is, the person who delivered this sermon is one of America’s greatest intellects.  It was an expression of a revival that swept New England, dividing the region’s Congregationalists into Old Lights and New Lights.   The question of the day was whether the people and even their spiritual leaders were actually Christians.  Although Jonathan Edwards did speak of God’s mercy, what we remember is the description of God’s wrath and judgment that stands over the unconverted.   

Saturday, January 10, 2015

More God Talk

I am about to begin a series of sermons that focus on God?  Why am I doing this?  Shouldn't I assume that we're all on the same page when we come to church and talk about God?  Well, the fact is, we don't all come with the same conceptions of God.  We bring to church a variety of conceptions, many of which we developed when we were children, perhaps inheriting from our parents.  There is a reason why I'm starting out my series of sermons with a reflection on Jonathan Edwards's infamous sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" -- you'll have to check that out tomorrow after it's posted.  There is also a reason why we'll sing the hymns "Immortal, Invisible, Only Wise God" (I thought about "A Mighty Fortress") and Ruth Duck's "Womb of Life, and Source of Being."

In preparing for this series I've been reading a variety of books, including Catherine Mowry LaCunga's God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life and Elizabeth A. Johnson's She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse.  Both authors are Catholic theologians, though LaCunga died some years back and Johnson has had her ability to teach as a Catholic theologian stripped away (though she remains extremely influential).  Both seek to build a bridge between feminist and classical theological categories.  And both are proving helpful as I expand my own sense of the mystery that is God, a mystery that transcends our ability to put in words the mystery, but not beyond God's ability to be made known to us.  

Friday, January 09, 2015

MEETING GOD IN MARK: Reflections for the Season of Lent. (Rowan Williams) -- A Review

MEETING GOD IN MARK: Reflections for the Season of LentBy Rowan Williams. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014.  IX + 86 pages. 

The Gospel of Mark is the briefest of the four canonical Gospels. It begins suddenly with an account of the ministry of John the Baptizer, who has been called by God in the Wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. His ministry culminates in the baptism of Jesus, who comes to the Jordan from Nazareth in Galilee.  The Gospel ends with an equally sudden visit to an empty tomb by Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome, who see a young man at the entrance of the tomb, and then flee.  Mark has neither an infancy narrative nor resurrection appearances. It has few accounts Jesus’ teaching ministry, and focuses a third of its length on the passion narrative – a larger portion than any of the other Gospels.   So what do we make of this Gospel?  It is sparse and direct.  It has never had the popularity of Matthew and Luke, whose Gospels seem to expand the narrative, nor that of John, which has its own sense of the story. And yet, many scholars believe it is the first Gospel written, and therefore has an influence on the way the story gets told from then on.

Perhaps reading the Gospel of Mark would be a good spiritual exercise for the season of Lent? If we are to take such a journey it would be helpful to have a knowledgeable guide. This small book written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, provides a helpful guide to the story – its origins and its purpose.  The book which is a mere three chapters long, and includes a study guide for a three-session study, along with a Lenten reading guide that takes one through the entire Gospel during Lent.  The chapters were originally presented as Holy Week talks given by the Archbishop at Canterbury in 2010. Originally published by SPCK, the book is now made available in the United States by WJK Press.  While he hopes that his ruminations are not at odds with contemporary scholarship, he doesn’t feel bound by scholarly consensus.  His aim “has been simply to offer suggestions for a slow reading of what notoriously feels like a rushed and packed text” (p. vii).

Thursday, January 08, 2015


FEASTING ON THE WORD LENTEN 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.  Xi + 300 pages.

                The Lenten season, like the season of Advent, carries with it a certain penitential and introspective sense.  It is a season of fasting and prayer (even if we don’t all give something up, we understand that the season itself follows Jesus’ forty day sojourn in the wilderness, where he fasted and faced temptation).   However we choose to observe it, the season is an important part of the journey toward Easter.  Without it Easter comes off as merely a nice spring festival (at least in the northern hemisphere).

                The Revised Common Lectionary offers the preacher a set of texts that are designed to lift up relevant themes for Lent, beginning with Jesus’ time in the wilderness.  But, the RCL is not the only place to find relevant texts.  As with the earlier Advent Companion, Westminster John Knox Press has published a Lenten Companion, which takes us from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday. Like the earlier volume it is edited by David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, who served as editors of the now completed Feasting on the Word series.  They are joined in this venture by Kimberly Bracken Long, who serves as editor of the Feasting on the Word Worship Companion, which supports the RCL readings.  Although not named on the cover, credit is given on the inside to Jessica Miller Kelley, who compiled the materials for this resource.

              Together the editors have compiled a volume that includes alternative readings from the Old and New Testaments, along with complete worship services that support those texts.    In addition, there are commentaries on each text that make use of materials either found in previous Feasting on the Word volumes are written for this volume.  These cover theological, pastoral, exegetical, and hometical approaches.  The worship materials include prayers, calls to confession, prayers of confession,  song/hymn suggestions to match the theme for the day, and children sermons for each Sunday (should your congregation have them).  Unfortunately they did not include Eucharistic prayers. In addition to the Sunday readings and worship materials, they provide materials for Maundy Thursday (with a service of foot-washing and Eucharist), Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.

For those who have midweek services, or would be interested in offering them during the season, the editors have provided materials for seven weeks of services, beginning with Ash Wednesday and concluding with the Wednesday of Holy Week.  One could easily read the homilies and provide time for silent meditation upon them.

For those seeking alternative worship materials and preaching helps for the season of Lent, they (we) can be thankful for the work of the editors and for Westminster John Knox in their efforts to support thoughtful preaching and vibrant worship. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Exceptionalism -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Everyone likes to think that they are exceptional or part of something exceptional.  Americans tend to think of their country (my country) as being exceptional.  Why is that?  What should we make of it?  Martin Marty interacts with an essay by William Galston at the Wall Street Journal that suggests that at the heart of this sense of exceptionalism is Christianity.  It's not because it is state established, but because it is chosen.  Marty note that part of the conversation however is the navigation between religious and secular concerns, and the ability to listen to all sides.  I invite you to read and consider and offer your thoughts.


Monday | Jan 5 2015
                                                                                                              Image: Maria Dryfhout / Shutterstock
Flashback: 75-plus years ago, growing up in Nebraska, my friends and I looked for something that might give us any kind of bragging rights. We were envious of California, New York, etc. for being Number One in so many rankings, which left us out. As I recall, we did eventually find that the Cornhusker State was the leading grower of alfalfa! But boasting about this did not impress even the neighbor Dakotans.

I share this story to remind myself and readers of the natural human impulse to find one’s self and one’s allegiances to be, if not superior to all others, then at least somehow exceptional. The allegiance to the United States as being “exceptional,” for example, is exceptional.