Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“Terror and Amazement” -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter, Year B

Resurrection, by Don Paulos (see below)
16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

                Had you been there that first Easter morning, how would you have reacted? Before we get to that question, maybe we should stop and ask if we would have been there at all. In each of the Resurrection accounts, only a few people actually go to the Tomb, and it is always one or more women who make the trek to the tomb.  It’s not Peter or James or John or Thomas or any of the other male disciples.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Anointed for Burial -- Reflection for Holy Monday

John 12:1-11

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them[a] with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii[b] and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it[c] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 
When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Yesterday we celebrated Palm Sunday.  It is a day of triumph, but that triumph is short lived. Even though John places the entry into Jerusalem after this story, the story of Mary anointing Jesus with pure nard, a perfume, which Judas understands to be of great value, this is an important story for us to hear as we move toward Easter. Palm Sunday reveals Jesus' calling to be the victorious but humble king (Zechariah 9:9), the path leads through death, and therefore it is appropriate that Jesus be prepared for that move.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hosanna! Hosanna! -- A Sermon for Palm Sunday

John 12:12-16

Everyone loves a parade. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Rose Parade or a Fourth of July parade. We love the floats and the bands and the candy thrown to the kids by the paraders! Maybe you’ve been in the parade. You marched in the band, walking what seemed like miles, trying to play your instrument while keeping your feet in proper motion and your lines straight. Maybe you rode on a float, which in a small local parade might be the back of a pickup, or simply walked down the street waving a flag. 

When a team wins a championship, the city will host a parade so that the people can celebrate their team. The players ride by waving to the screaming fans, while confetti falls from tall buildings. Of course, the joy doesn’t last long, because teams rarely repeat their big wins. 

Most parades send messages. A Fourth of July Parade celebrates patriotism, while a championship parade celebrates the superiority of one’s team over its rivals. As that old song from the 70s puts it: “We are the Champions of the World!”

Friday, March 27, 2015

Disciples Taking a Stand in Indiana

Yesterday the governor of Indiana signed a "Religious Freedom" law that essentially gives businesses and others the right to discriminate against LGBT folks on the basis of their religious beliefs.  Indiana is one of many states that is enacting legislation in anticipation that the Supreme Court will strike down gay marriage bans. 

My denomination, which is based in Indianapolis and is scheduled to hold our 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis had threatened to move the General Assembly elsewhere if it was signed.  In a letter sent to the governor, together with the Presidents of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Division of Homeland Ministries, Sharon and her co-signers declared:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Recapturing the Selma Spirit

It has been fifty years since the events of the Selma march. That being said remnants of the past linger. Segregation may not be legal, but it still exists in subtle ways. Tonight in Detroit we have the opportunity of listening to voices and hearts and begin to heal the wounds of the past so we can go forward. The Detroit Clergy Gathering has invited the Metro Coalition of Congregations to come together for conversation and commitment to a new future. In the civil rights struggle. Persons like myself -- persons who are white and male -- have stood as allies. But, we must admit that we have not experienced discrimination. We've not faced the prospect of being pulled over by the police simply because of our color. We have not be denied voting rights.  I stand as an ally, but I have much to learn.

With that, I will be sharing a prayer in the event. In light of this, I thought I would share this video that will, I believe, be shown this evening. It does capture the spirit! If you're in the area tonight, join us!!

We have a long way to go, but we shall overcome.  

In The Spirit of Selma from Zachary Cunningham on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Catholic Hispanics Defect -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

While the vast majority of Latinos are Roman Catholic, great numbers are leaving the fold. Many "defect" to Protestantism, especially Pentecostalism.  This is true both in the United States and in Latin America as a whole. There are a number of reasons for this, but it does point out important areas of concern for all of us.  It is not movement from one tradition to another that is the biggest concern -- it is secularism and even more worrisome, indifference.  I invite you to read and respond to Martin Marty's thoughts.

Catholic Hispanics Defect
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 23, 2015
                                                                              Image Credit: Kamira / shutterstock creative commons 
“Firing Up America” could refer to any number of incendiary subjects, and the cover illustration on The Economist (March 14) doesn’t help much in sorting: it shows an American flag whose stripes are strung-together red peppers. The subtitle alerts readers to something worth sighting, “A Special Report on America’s Latinos.”

The Chicago media is full of stories about a Latino candidate for mayor, and keep Latinos on our minds. We decided to go national/international:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jesus on Parade -- Lectionary Reflection for Palm Sunday

Mark 11:1-11 (John 12:12-16) New Revised Standard  Version

11 When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
10     Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

                If there is one Sunday out of the year that presents unavoidable problems for preachers it is Palm Sunday. What do we do with this triumphal parade when we know what will happen at the end of the week.  No, we could go a different direction on the Sunday before Easter. We could open the service with the children’s palm parade, maybe sing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” and then quickly move to the Passion story. After all, the lectionary offers us the choice – “The Liturgy of the Palms and the Liturgy of the Passion.” Why not do Good Friday on Sunday and avoid the problems presented by a triumphal entry gone bad!

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Divine Magician (Peter Rollins) -- A Review

THE DIVINE MAGICIAN: The Disappearance of Religion and the Discovery of Faith.  By Peter Rollins. New York: Howard Books, 2015. 189 pages.

It’s not often that I open up a book and find the author interacting with John Tillotson, the late 17th century Archbishop of Canterbury. Tillotson found himself in this role due to the deprival of the sitting archbishop, William Sancroft, who refused to take the oath of allegiance to the new monarchs. Tillotson was known to be a Latitudinarian, the preacher of an unalloyed message focusing on moral duty rather than sacred mysteries. As Peter Rollins notes, it was Tillotson who made use of the words now connected with magic—hocus pocus—to refer to the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Rollins uses Tillotson’s reference to what Catholics believed to occur in the Eucharist as being a magic trick to take us in the direction he wants us to go.  What if the idea of religion as magic has some usefulness for us? What if the metaphor can help us recognize that traditional understandings of Christianity fall short of being revelatory.

Rollins has become fairly well known in recent years for challenging traditional boundaries, making use of deconstructionist philosophy (he has a Ph.D. in post-structuralist philosophy) to deconstruct Christian religion.  His critique seems in line with others ranging from Christian Piatt to Diana Butler Bass that if Christianity is to survive with some kind of value it must let go of its religious ties. Thus, he is reflective of the postmodern attempt to take an axe to the root of the tree of the Christian religion. Like many others he wants to move us away from a focus on beliefs to practices. To recognize that there is no place for certainty, but that we have to let go of the idea that we can define God.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Cross of Glory -- Sermon for Lent 5B

John 12:20-33

Crosses come in all sizes and shapes. They may have religious symbolism or they might just be a piece of jewelry. Pope Francis decided to keep his rather simple cross instead of getting a newer and more ornate cross when he became Pope. My aunt who is a Jehovah’s Witness once asked me if I would wear an electric chair pendant if that was the way Jesus was executed. I was only sixteen and didn’t have a good answer. It is interesting that we’ve made the symbol of a brutal form of execution a piece of  decorative art.  Perhaps that’s as it should be, since God has a tendency to turn things upside down!

I know that Palm Sunday is a week away, but according to the lectionary Jesus is already in Jerusalem. The world is behind him, and the cross lies before him. In that moment, Jesus declares:  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Yes, according to John, this is the hour for which Jesus came into the world. It’s not that Jesus is excited about what lies before him.  He confesses that his soul is troubled. He would like for this hour to pass him by, but he’s already crossed the threshold. There is only one way to go and that is forward toward the cross of glory.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What is Salvation?

I will soon be preaching a series of sermons on salvation, because I believe it is a doctrine that is poorly understood within the church. Among mainline churches, it has become problematic because of the link to the idea that salvation is simply an individual decision to get on the heavenly bandwagon. But surely there is more to salvation than this.  I have long found that Liberation Theology provides important resources for our conversation. Liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez have reflected on the question and have helped understand the "this-world" implications of salvation.  As we move toward the series, and through it I will be sharing reflections that can stir the conversation.

Gutierrez points us to the move from a quantitative approach to a qualitative one. The former has to do with getting humans into heaven, usually by way of the church. This life is merely a test in preparation for the next. A qualitative approach seeks to understand the implications for this life, and outside the walls of the church. Gutierrez finds support for this in Catholic doctrine.

I want to share a paragraph that includes a citation from the proceedings of CELAM held in Bogota in 1968. CELAM is the acronym for the Episcopal Conference of Latin America.  
Salvation is not something otherworldly, in regard to which the present life is merely a test. Salvation -- the communion of men with God and the communion of men with themselves -- is something which embraces all human reality, transforms it, and leads it to its fullness in Christ: "Thus the center of God's salvific design is Jesus Christ, who by his death and resurrection transforms the universe and makes it possible for man to reach fulfillment as a human being. This fulfillment embraces every aspect of humanity: body and spirit, individual and society, person and cosmos, time and eternity. Christ, the image of the Father and the perfect God-Man, takes on all the dimensions of human existence."  [Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, (Orbis, 1973).
How do we reclaim the broader implications of salvation? How should we understand the work of Christ in this world transforming it so that all humanity, the creation itself, reaches its fulfillment?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Lyle Schaller Passes

It is still early in 2015, but it appears that we are watching as a generation of important and influential Christian leaders passes from us.  First it was Marcus Borg, then Fred Craddock, and now Lyle Schaller (who lived longer than either Borg or Craddock) has died on Wednesday at the age of 91. Schaller's name might not be as well known today, but when I was in college and seminary everyone read Schaller on church life and ministry. As Leith Anderson notes in his tribute at the Christianity Today website, Schaller stayed away from theological issues and conflicts. He saw himself as a consultant not a conflict mediator. Thus, although he was Methodist and Mainline, he was read by people from across the religious spectrum, from right to left and in between.

It has been awhile since I spent time reading Schaller, but he helped me think about what it meant to be a pastor, what it means to be a change agent (one of his books has that title), how to be an administrator of church, how to grow the church, and how to staff it. I can't necessarily pinpoint everything I learned from him, mainly because it has been awhile since I read him. But there was a time when he was a mainstay of my reading and that of many others. So, in many ways he helped form me as a pastor.  

Let us therefore commend him to God's care and affirm him to have been a good and faithful servant of Christ.  

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Change of Heart (Jeanne Bishop) -- Review

CHANGE OF HEART: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer By Jeanne Bishop. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xv + 159 pages.

                Reconciliation and forgiveness are core doctrines of the Christian faith. Jesus tells Peter to forgive not just three times, by seventy times seven times. Paul writes that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self. Then there’s the call to love not just neighbor but enemies as well.  The message is there, but can we inhabit it?  Perhaps at an intellectual level we can accept the ideas as being true, but what happens when a family member is brutally murdered? How do you forgive? Not only that how can you be reconciled to that person? How do you sit across the table, even if the table is divided by glass and you speak to each other on a phone and a have a conversation that leads to some kind of restoration?  Is it possible that one can experience such transformation in the aftermath of such a tragedy that one’s life takes on new meaning and new purpose?

These are the kinds of questions that are addressed by Jeanne Bishop in her powerful story of life after the murders of her pregnant sister and her husband.  Bishop's story is rooted in faith. It is her faith in God and a desire to make a difference in the world, to make it a better place, a place that reflected her vision of her sister. It is an arduous journey that puts her at odds with family, friends, and even strangers. At the time of the murders, she was an up and coming corporate attorney. After the fact, she gave that up to serve as a public defender. You might have thought that such a person would become a prosecutor, but that’s not the choice she made.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Sustaining the Momentum III -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

As the 50th anniversary commemorations of the march from Selma to Montgomery continue, it is good to keep an eye on the issues at hand. We need to remember, but also to look at the present and the future. Martin Marty writes as one who participated in the original march and continues his reflections here. He notes that even as Civil Rights, including Voting Rights, remain an important cause, so does the need for equal opportunity. There are signs of despair in Selma, Alabama, but also signs of hope. He lifts up both and pushes us to keep on pushing forward. Take a read.

Sustaining the Momentum III
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 16, 2015
March 7, 2015: Crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in remembrance of the "Bloody Sunday" march on March 7, 1965        Source: Lawrence Jackson / Wikimedia Commons 
The Jubilee of the Selma marches of 1965 attracts veterans of those marches who are now labeled "foot soldiers" in the Civil Rights experiences in the small Alabama city. (See my 2013 Sightings, “Selma: Sustaining the Momentum Still,” in “Sources” today. The 2013 report took off from my first article with that name in The Christian Centuryin 1965.)

On March 7 (2015), some news outlets said that 88,000 were on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge and its ramps, which makes it "ancient history" in contemporary news cycles. It was amply covered in various media, so I need not amplify or provide late details.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Hour has Come -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B

John 12:20-33 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. 
27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
“The world behind me, the cross before me, no turning back, no turning back.” These words from the old gospel song “I have decided to follow Jesus,” make clear the situation of the moment. Having come to Jerusalem, there was no turning back for Jesus. The moment had come for his glorification. I’m not sure why the request from the “Greeks” triggers this response from Jesus.  I’m not sure why these Greeks (Gentiles?), who seemed to know Philip, wanted to see Jesus. But the request offers Jesus the opportunity to reveal the path that lay ahead. He was going to face down “the World” (kosmos), which Charles Campbell helpfully identifies as “The System.”   The moment when Jesus would face down the ruler of this world, and as a result that ruler will be sent packing. But, how will this happen? What is the mechanism?

It might be helpful to set the scene. As for us, the readers of this text, it’s likely that we’re drawn to it because it is the lectionary reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the reason why I’m writing this reflection, though I am preaching on the passage as well. While Palm Sunday remains a little farther off in the distance, and with it the Triumphal Entry (John 12:12-19), with this reading Jesus is already in Jerusalem. The countdown has begun. The hour has come. There is no turning back – the cross lays ahead of him. The triumphal entry, which we will have to celebrate a week from Sunday, will be shown to be a misreading of Jesus’ vision of kingdom making. As for us, the readers of this passage, a choice is being placed before us.  Will we turn back? Or will we keep following Jesus – wherever that leads?

Monday, March 16, 2015


In pondering what to write about this morning, my thoughts were triggered by my watching the Academy Award nominated movie Whiplash. The movie tells the story of a young man studying at one of the foremost music conservatories in the nation. He's a drummer and wants to be a successful jazz drummer. Only 19 he's admitted into the top jazz band in the school, led by a rather sadistic teacher played powerfully by J.K. Simmons (an Academy Award winner for best supporting actor).

Andrew Neiman wants to succeed.  He wants to become a great drummer, but Fletcher, his teacher, both encourages and discourages him. The teacher demands a perfection only he understands.  There is violence of language and physicality in the relationship.  So driven is the young man that he practices until his hands bleed.  He wants to be the top drummer. He wants to impress. But can he? Near the end of the movie, after Andrew has been kicked out of the school for actions on his part (I don't want to reveal too much) and Fletcher has been fired from his teaching position because of his abusiveness, the two meet in a bar where Fletcher is playing. There Fletcher tells Andrew that he pushes students beyond what is expected so as to move them toward greatness.  Andrew asks him whether there a line beyond which one can go too far,  

The movie raises the question of what it means to be driven by the need to succeed. I would guess that there are personal reasons that drove Andrew. His father was loving and supportive, but others in the extended family don't seem to understand what it means to excel as a jazz drummer. Being a football player -- that has value, but not being a musician.  As I thought about the movie and its focus on power and its ability to lift and destroy, I began thinking about the broader aspects of life. Why do some people feel driven, and others don't. Why do some thrive under pressure and others don't.  I began thinking spiritually -- is it right to be driven to succeed?  I look at biblical characters and many of them, including Paul appear driven by something. Paul seems to need to undo his actions as a persecutor. He desires to turn the world upside down, and yet he also understands that God's "grace is sufficient," that "power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).    

At the same time Paul is not one to give in easily.  After all, it is Paul who writes to the same Corinthian church:
Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.  (1 Corinthians 9:24).
As the season of Lent begins to wind down what does it mean to rest in the grace of God, so that whatever we do we do to the glory of God?

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Path of Salvation -- Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:14-21

The cover of the February 23rd issue of Time Magazine declares: “This Baby Could Live to be 142 Years Old.”  Doesn’t that sound wonderful? So what’s the secret? It all depends on whom you ask, and the articles in that issue offer some tips for living well past one hundred. Of course, living that long poses interesting complications. As Laura Carstensen writes:   
The challenge we face today is converting a world built quite literally by and for the young into a world that supports and engages populations that live to 100 and beyond. [Time, 69-70] 
I’ve been taking a rather unscientific poll since the article came out, and I’m not hearing a lot of excitement about living that long. We may want to live long lives, but maybe not that long. 

Friday, March 13, 2015

Finding Jesus (David Gibson and Michael McKinley) -- A Review

FINDING JESUS: Faith. Fact. Forgery.: Six Holy Objects That Tell the Remarkable Story of the GospelsBy David Gibson and Michael McKinley. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014. 242 pages.

                There remains a continuing fascination with searches for the historical Jesus. They might be textual or they may be archaeological. They can even be rather esoteric. Everyone seems to want a piece of Jesus, for in having a piece of him there is the opportunity to define him. In recent years the Jesus Seminar sought to ferret out fact from fiction in the Gospels. Not surprisingly the Gospel of John didn’t emerge as a reliable source. One way of searching for Jesus is to explore the canonical texts. But in recent years the parameters of allowable sources has expanded considerably. Once forgotten or suppressed texts, many of them Gnostic in origin have been consulted as a means of expanding the possibilities. With all the sources available, how do we know what is fact and what is fiction? What must we take by faith? The Christian tradition, as a religion, has always had a stake in the witness of history. Jesus is not a mythical figure. He was a flesh and blood human being who lived in Roman occupied Galilee. What must be taken by faith is the confession that this man of Galilee is also Son of God.

                The question that is ever before us is this: “Who is Jesus?”  The authors of the book Finding Jesus, David Gibson and Michael McKinley, a book written as a companion to the CNN series of the same title, open their book with the statement that the question of Jesus “must be posed in the present tense because, for believers, Jesus is God and exists in the here and now every bit as much as he ever did” (p. 1). But not only are believers engaged, so are agnostics and skeptics. Persons from every religious and ideological position seem to want a stake in Jesus. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Flipped (Doug Pagitt) -- A Review

FLIPPED: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. By Doug Pagitt.  New York: Convergent Books, 2015. 212 pages.

A central theme in the Christian faith is the call to conversion or repentance. To repent is to change direction. John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter all preached a message of repentance as the pathway to entering the realm of God.  The language of repentance is rather religious and traditional. It has a certain patina to it, and thus it might not speak as usefully to a culture that has eschewed traditional religious language and practices. So, how might one communicate the truth of repentance in a way that would make sense to this new generation that is either unfamiliar with or uncomfortable with religious language? Perhaps one might create new language to communicate basic elements of the Christian faith.  Thus, Doug Pagitt offers us the term “flipped.”  To flip is to change one’s mind/life and go in a different direction.  Better, Doug writes that “change and growth are what Flipped is all about.” (p. 2).

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Lost in Translation -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

When most of us read scripture, we read in translation. Skillful translators can help bridge cultural and chronological distance.  Still there are other factors that go into the act of reading -- for it is a matter of interpreting texts in context. Sometimes it is important to hear different voices, like a Jewish scholar of the New Testament read the parables with us.  When it comes to the issue of violence in scriptures, which has become an issue of late as the Qu'ran is declared to be a book of violence -- again translation and context are essential.  Martin Marty takes a look at two book reviews that are to appear in the Christian Century that should open up interesting discussions.  Take a read and consider Marty's points!

Lost in Translation
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 9, 2015
"The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), National Gallery of Art, Washington DC                                                Source: Web Gallery of Art / Wikimedia Commons 
“Religion in American (etc.) Public Life” is our rubric and we sight references to it at least weekly. So what business do we have lifting up, from a single magazine, two reviews of books about ancient Hebrew prophets and New Testament parables? What ever happened to ‘focus’ and ‘relevance’!?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Light, Faith, and Eternal Life -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B

John 3:14-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

            If you’ve memorized at least one verse of scripture, it is likely you have memorized John 3:16. It is assumed by many that the public at large knows this verse well enough that you can simply post the reference on a sign at an athletic event and the world will know exactly what it signifies. The premise of the passage is two-fold—God loves the world enough to risk the life of his only son, and if you believe in Jesus you will have eternal life. The son is the light that shines into the darkness. How one responds to this light determines one’s fate. Those who are evil will have their deeds exposed and placed under judgment. Those who believe will experience divine grace.

Monday, March 09, 2015

An Introverted Church?

Before church yesterday I picked up a book off one of the shelves before worship and read a few pages.  The book was written in the early 1960s by Ronald Osborn, then the Dean at Christian Theological Seminary and a member of the Consultation on Church Union.   The book titled A Church for These Times was designed to be an open letter to American Christians, at least Protestant Christians, suggesting that COCU offered a way forward.  I want to share a paragraph written fifty years ago, but which could be written today (at least much of it).  He writes: 
Inwardly, in the realm of the spirit, the church has become deaf to the gospel. In eras of the church's power, elation at the good news of God is its dynamic force. Joy in the everlasting mercy charges the atmosphere of worship and weaves bonds of fellowship among all the believers; eagerness to proclaim the divine love turns the church outward in mission and in service. But when the gospel is muted, for whatever reason, the church degenerates into an institution for worthy purposes, a society for the cultivation of serenity, an organization of the "nice people." One when the realization of God's love for us stirs us to our depths can we be saved from introversion. That is why a crucial section of this book deals with the gospel. The church must be transfigured. [A Church for these Times, Abindon Press, 1965, p. 16].
What is the church?  An institution for worthy purposes."  It is a club.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Concerning the House of God -- Sermon for Lent 3B

John 12:13-25

What does it mean to be the Church of Jesus?  Could that be the question raised by Jesus’ actions in the Temple?  In this story, Jesus makes a rather bold claim on the Temple. This is his “father’s house,” and it’s been turned into a marketplace.  The house of God, which Jesus was claiming for his father, was supposed to be the place where God could be encountered. 

The Temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent building, much like a grand medieval cathedral. Herod the Great had begun rebuilding the Temple put up after the end of the Exile. This replacement for Solomon’s Temple was small and uninspiring. It would never do in an age when grand temples were being built across the Roman Empire. Herod built palaces and fortresses, but he also needed a Temple that could be a showplace to not only impress his subjects, who resented him for being an outsider appointed by the Romans, but also the tourists who passed through the city. The Temple Jesus entered was one of the great wonders of the ancient world, ranking with other edifices such as the Parthenon in Athens and the pyramids of Egypt. Of course he built the Temple on the backs of the people, who were taxed and drafted into work teams. It might have been magnificent, but it was also a burden to the people.

Herod’s Temple may have been a sight to behold from a distance, but when you came closer you would begin to notice its shadow side. That’s what Jesus encountered when he entered the Temple precincts. 

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Remembering Fred Craddock (d. March 6, 2015)

It was just a few days ago that Leonard Nimoy died. His performances as Spock in various Star Trek shows and movies has been iconic.  Many of us mourned his passing and remembered him with fondness.  Yesterday, we lost another iconic figure.  Fred Craddock might not be as well known to the broader public, but preachers of many traditions and persons lay and clergy among Disciples know him well.  It was in the most recent issue of the Christian Century that Fred's legacy and ministry was celebrated.  Fred Craddock may have passed on from this world, but his legacy will live on for many a year.

Craddock's legacy will be carried on in his influential books, which offered a different vision of preaching -- one that rested less on the persona of the preacher and more on the story being conveyed.  The name that has been given to this style of preaching is the "inductive method," and it was first shared with the broader world in two books from the 1960s and 1970s: As One Without Authority: Fourth Edition Revised and with New Sermons (originally published in 1969) and Overhearing the Gospel: Revised and Expanded Edition (1978).  One can debate the method, but Craddock's abilities as a preacher are legendary.  I have had the opportunity to hear him preach on several occasions, and never have I been disappointed.

One of the most fascinating things about him was his gentle demeanor and unassuming manner.  He was a born story-teller, or at least he caught it from his father.  What is intriguing about him is that, despite his success as a preacher and a teacher of preacher, a high school teacher sought to dissuade him from going into ministry because he would never succeed as a preacher.  You see he had too small and shrill a voice.  Apparently he turned that to his advantage.  The story of his journey to a ministry of preaching is told in a memoir that covers the first eighteen years of his life -- Reflections on My Call to Preach: Connecting the Dots.  [My review of the book appeared in the Fall issue of Congregations (Alban). 

Reading Craddock's sermons is not the same as hearing the -- except that if you've heard him preach you will begin to hear his voice rather clearly.  There are several collections of his sermons available, as well as a collection of his stories that was co-edited by my friend Mike Graves:  Craddock Stories
The death of Fred Craddock reminds us that a generation of preachers, teachers, and theologians is passing  from the scene. We will miss their insights and vision, but we will be blessed by our memories of them.  May God be with his family as they journey forward. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

From Words of Woe to Unbelievable News

As we head into the middle of the Lenten journey, I would like to share word that my latest book -- From Words of Woe to Unbelievable News: Alternative Voices for the Lenten Journey (Topical Line Drives Book 19) -- is out in both print and for Kindle.  Last year (2014), I chose to follow an alternative lectionary during Lent as well as for Easter Sunday.  This lectionary developed by David Ackerman, a United Church of Christ pastor and currently serving as Conference Minister for the Penn West Conference of the United Church of Christ.

The journey begins in Matthew 23, with two of Jesus' words of woe, warnings against hypocrisy, and ends with another selection from scripture -- the longer ending of Mark. This passage rarely if ever is touched upon in sermons because, as we know it is likely an later addition to Mark, designed to make up for the rather sudden ending to the version of Mark considered to be original (I will be preaching on the accepted ending this year).  Even if it is a later addition it does raise interesting points and was considered scripture for centuries.

Of the readings chosen for Lent, David notes in the introduction to the book, they "are not for the timid or faint of heart and require a creative approach to bridging the cultural gap between the context of Biblical world and ours" (p. 5).  I'm pleased that David felt that I had been able to do this effectively in this set of sermons.

If you are seeking a brief book to use for meditation or even as a means of stirring up alternative paths for preaching, let me invite you to check out the book.  While you're at it, I would encourage you to check out David's alternative lectionary, which he titled Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary