Sunday, May 31, 2015

We Are Children of God - A Sermon for Trinity Sunday -- Year B

Romans 8:12-17

I’m not a fan of reality TV, so I don’t ordinarily keep up with the Duggars or the Kardashians. Of course, they’re hard to ignore when they break into the regular news cycles.  While none of us are participants in reality TV, many of us share snippets of family life with the broader public on social media. Sometimes we might even share too much information about our family life with the public! But, whether or not we share the contents of family life with the world by way of Facebook or Instagram, isn’t family life fun? 

It’s good to remember that families come in all shapes and sizes, so that in some way we’re all part of a family of some kind! 

Some people dream of being part of the perfect family. It’s probably not the kind of family we see portrayed on reality TV, but it could be the Cleavers or the Huxtables.  I realize I’m dating myself by mentioning these two TV families of yesteryear, but they do live on in reruns. In many ways Cliff and Ward aren’t that different. They’re the wise fathers who know what’s best for their not always perfect, but generally happy children. As for June and Clair, while they might be very different kinds of women, they provide family stability. For many people these two families projected an almost perfect picture of family life, which many of us dreamed about growing up.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Barth, the Trinity and the Multiplicity of Gifts

Iris blooming -- picture by Rev. Judi McMillan

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. I recognize that the doctrine of the Trinity is complicated and thus we have a tendency, even if we affirm the Trinity, to not give it much thought. Since Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost Sunday -- where we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the gathered followers of Jesus, empowering them to proclaim the Gospel in the languages of the Jewish pilgrims who have journeyed to Jerusalem from across the diaspora -- it's appropriate to consider the connection to things church, ministry, Spirit, and Trinity.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Peaceful Neighbor (Michael G. Long) -- Review

PEACEFUL NEIGHBOR: Discovering the Countercultural Mister RogersBy Michael G. Long. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xvii + 203 pages

                I was already well into elementary school when Mr. Rogers came on the scene.  My morning staple was Captain Kangaroo instead. Nonetheless, over the years I’ve caught snippets of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, which appeared for decades on local PBS stations, offering to America’s children a gentle, sweater-wearing father figure.  Compared to its PBS neighbor Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers was pretty low key. Despite the lack of high octane elements, it held the attention of several generations of children.

While I knew that Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister who saw his show as an expression of his ministry calling, even if the religious element wasn't explicit, I didn’t realize that his message was rather radical. Not having spent much time watching the show—it’s possible I watched it with my son when he was young, but I remember Thomas the Tank Engine instead (with Ringo and George Carlin as conductors), I didn’t catch his faith-formed message that focused on teaching peace to children. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Progressives Look Forward -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

It's been thirty years since I graduated from seminary (or it will be in June). I'm a graduate of what many consider the flagship progressive evangelical seminary, but it shares many of the qualities found in more liberal seminaries, which Paul Raushenbusch, Great Grandson of Walter Rauschenbusch, addressed in a recent graduation speech. He declared, surprising some, that it's a good time to graduate from a Progressive Seminary. While it might not seem like this is a good time, with declining congregations and all, Raushenbush the younger believes that the message that his ancestor once preached continues to resonate today. Martin Marty, always on the lookout for interesting thoughts, engages the conversation here, inviting us to dream!

Progressives Look Forward
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAY 25, 2015
Rev. Paul Raushenbush, Huffington Post's Executive Religion Editor     Screenshot: YouTube video
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Paul Raushenbush has dropped two “c’s” from his famed Christian-theologian-minister great-grandfather Walter Rauschenbusch’s name, but he reflects the ancestor’s tradition, captures some of his spirit, and looks to the future in that spirit.

Never heard of P.R. or W.R., with or without “c’s?” Follow the link (see “Sources” below) and you will find that Paul, our contemporary, is an author and Huffington Post’s Executive Religion Editor.

His great-grandfather was the most noted progenitor of the Social Gospel movement, which flourished 1.5 centuries ago. Sightings links the two because we’ve appreciated an edited version of P.R.’s commencement address at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School on May 16.

The headline for P.R.’s recent blog post is bold: “It’s a Great Time To Be Graduating from a Mainline, Progressive, Christian, Divinity School.” To quote the voices one almost hears: “Hunh?”

P.R. can cite his ancestor or graduates of the seminary which, thanks to mergers, includes spiritually profound alumni like the African-American preacher and mystic Howard Thurman and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., both graduates during generations when “mainline, progressive, Christian” (M-P-C) divinity schools were in favor. Under the newsmakers’ spotlight they are, as Raushenbush knows, less so today.

So what is going on here? Someone in the media world offering compensation to the neglected? (Remember when “equal time” reigned in major media outlets?) Or offering consolation to losers, as M-P-Cs, headlined in bold, above, are often seen to be?

Is the Commencement speaker doing what many have to do: startle and surprise those graduates who should look up from their cell-phones to listen? Perhaps he is just drumming up trade for Huffington Post? Can he be so “out of it” that he does not know how foreign his topic might seem to be?

None of the above. It’s Raushenbush’s job to cover the spectrum of religious news and phenomena. He knows that M-P-C fortunes don’t stand a chance when it comes to getting attention in the face of not-yet-declining mega-churches, colorful hip-hop post-“gospel” music people at worship, or—the Commencement speaker well knows and mentions—the still-on-the-scene Christian Far Right, which, attached to some political forces, cannot not be noticed by bloggers and media folk in general. So we pay attention.

Raushenbush tells the stories—one-line each—of many goings on which sustain the impulses of “great-grandpa’s” involvement in, definition of, and advocacy of what came to be called “the Social Gospel.” W.R. preached great sermons, prayed and published eloquent prayers, and “got his hands dirty” in a parish of poor immigrants on Manhattan’s West Side before he entered academe at Rochester Theological Seminary (now “Colgate Rochester Crozer”) which he never allowed to be ivied or ivory-towered.

That Rochester graduate of 1886 worked with and promoted a Gospel which, its critics saw and said, was too tied to some superficial motifs or too optimistic, as progressives were often said to be, to have the whole theological and ministerial field to himself but, battered by the “downs” of World War I, he stayed with his themes.

P.R. does not by any means claim that the heirs of the Social Gospel in the “progressive” line have monopolies or inside tracks or social gospels to themselves. He knows that contemporary Catholicism, African-American and other “-American,” and, note well, contemporary and emergent evangelical voices and fronts share the mandates and mission that Rauschenbusch and Raushenbush advance.

Maybe P.R. is right then: it is “a great time. . . .”  or it could or can be. Go forth, graduates!


Raushenbush, Paul Brandeis. “It’s A Great Time To Be Graduating From A Mainline, Progressive, Christian, Divinity School.” Huffington Post, May 18, 2015, Religion Blog.

Gotobed, Julian. “Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918).” Entry in The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology. Edited by Wesley Wildman.

Rauschenbusch, Walter. A Theology for the Social Gospel. In the Library of Theological Ethics Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1917.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. “Families, friends delight in CRCDS 2015 Commencement Exercises.” Press Room, May 18, 2015.

To read the complete text of Rev. Raushenbush’s May 16, 2015 commencement address at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, see:

Image: Paul Raushenbush interviewed on CNN in 2014; Screenshot of YouTube video.

To comment: email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at If you would like your comment to appear with the archived version of this article on the Marty Center's website, please provide your full name in the body of the email and indicate in the subject line: POST COMMENT TO [title of Sightings piece]. ForSightings' comment policy, visit:
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at
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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Born of the Spirit - Lectionary Reflection for Trinity Sunday B

John 3:1-17 Common English Bible (CEB)
3 There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader. He came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” 
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born anew,[a] it’s not possible to see God’s kingdom.” 
Nicodemus asked, “How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?” 
Jesus answered, “I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Don’t be surprised that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ God’s Spirit[b] blows wherever it wishes. You hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. It’s the same with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 
Nicodemus said, “How are these things possible?” 
10 “Jesus answered, “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things? 11 I assure you that we speak about what we know and testify about what we have seen, but you don’t receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you don’t believe, how will you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Human One.[c] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so must the Human One[d] be lifted up 15 so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. 16 God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. 17 God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
                It is Trinity Sunday. We have heard the good news that the promised Holy Spirit has fallen upon the church, empowering and inspiring it to carry the good news of God’s love for the world.  The focus of Pentecost is on the Holy Spirit, who is to accompany the church on its movement out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Trinity Sunday serves to remind us that this venture is a Trinitarian one.  You don’t get one member of the Trinity without the other two being involved. Each person might have a specific duty affixed to their person, but even in their separateness there is oneness.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorials and War -- A Reflection

Tomb of Civil War Unknown Soldier -- Arlington Cemetery
Memorial Day is a national holiday that has its roots in what was once known as Decoration Day. It was established in the late 19th century to honor Union Soldiers who had died during the Civil War. Since war has been part of our national ethos for much of our history, a day of remembrance of those who died to keep together a nation that President Lincoln had declared could not survive half slave and half free has become a day to remember all who have died in service to country. That is as it should be, though we can pray that the day will come when we're no longer adding names to the long list of those who have died in times of war.

Because this observance has its roots in remembering those who died in the Civil War (specifically
Bloody Lane, Antietam
Union war dead), it is appropriate that we stop to remember a war that kept the nation together and ended slavery in the nation (at least in those states that had rebelled).  While the nation remained one and slavery ended, we're still living with the ramifications of the war. For former slaves slavery might have ended, but the now free African American faced great hurdles, hurdles that often remain present to this day, that prevented them from entering fully into national life. The myth of separate but equal emerged as a cover for discrimination and bigotry. The cause of "state's rights" continues to be pushed to this day, with calls for secession and nullification being bandied about, often in the region that made up the former Confederacy.

I must confess that I have always identified with the Union cause. It is ironic that the party of Lincoln has now become the party of states rights.  I am troubled, I will admit, by those who fly the Confederate battle flag. To me that runs contrary to one's identity as an American.  We are the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America. As a result of that war we cemented the idea of our unity as a nation, so that we are first Americans and only secondarily citizens of a particular state. 

For the past four years observances have been held remembering the Civil War. Now that we've reached the 150th anniversary of the end of the War, it will be easy for us to forget that defining moment in our nation's history, but we dare not forget. Calls for secession are a betrayal of our national identity. We dare not forget that we are many and diverse, but we also one nation. It is in that spirit that I stop to remember those who have died down through the years in service to country. It is also in that spirit that leads me to pray that war would cease and that would pursue peaceful means of resolving our differences.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Living Bones -- A Sermon for Pentecost Sunday B

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Do you need a vacation?  Is life pressing in on you? Do your bones feel dry and lifeless? It’s a holiday weekend, the sun is out, summer is near at hand, shouldn’t we all be sitting by a lake enjoying a bit of sunshine and relaxation instead of sitting here listening to the preacher talk about dry bones? Don’t answer that last question!!

There’s a song from my childhood that goes like this:  
“When you're weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all; I'm on your side.”
The words of this song echo those of Jesus: 
28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).
 So, when you’re struggling with a heavy load and tears are in your eyes, do you hear Jesus calling out? “I’m on your side.” 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Church -- the invisible in the visible.

You might say that Pentecost was an event. Something happened that caught the attention of the people in Jerusalem (Acts 2).  The Spirit opened the doors and the windows and got things going.  And here we are, today, centuries later, wondering what actually the church is.  Is it people or a building, a community or an institution?

I've been reading a book entitled Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology(Cascade, 2013).  It's a scholarly work that helps us understand the development of Barth's understanding of the church. As I was reading I encountered a chapter entitled "The Origin of the Church as the Fellowship of the Spirit." Those who have read Barth know that his is a dialectical theology, in which he seeks balance between two seemingly opposite points. Thus, for Barth the church is both visible and invisible. In exploring this dialectic, Barth avers that church is event. As Kimlyn Bender, author of this book suggests, for Barth "the real church is not to be sought apart from, nor even behind, its historical manifestation, but only within its historical form. Only by looking at what is seen, the visible church even in the midst of its imperfection and sin, do we perceive (by faith!) that which cannot be seen, the invisible power of the church" (p. 171).  I quote here from Bender, who summarizes Barth, because there is the belief held by many that the only church we need to engage is that which is invisible. But, according to Bender we cannot engage that church without engaging the historical manifestation. Choosing one pole over the other leads either to the heresy of docetism or that of the Ebionites.

The church may be a human institution on one level, but it is also a church that is created and empowered by the Spirit.  Here's a quote from Barth:

It is clear however, that to see and understand that which is effected by God, the Church, in its true reality, we have not to lose sight even momentarily or incidentally of the occurrence of the divine operation, and therefore concretely of the divine work of upbuilding the community by Jesus Christ. The Church is, of course, a human, earthly-historical construct, whose history involves from the very first, and always well involve, human action. But it is this human construct, the christian Church, because and as God is at work in it by His Holy Spirit. [CD IV.2, 617, quoted in Bender, note 18, p. 172].

So, as we celebrate Pentecost let us remember that the Spirit has come to empower a church to bear witness to the Gospel.  It will do so in visible form, even if the Spirit is not always visible!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Children and Gifts - Excerpt from Unfettered Spirit

Note:  With Pentecost on the horizon, and in light of a conversation with Bruce Epperly earlier this week focusing on the Spirit and Ministry, I wanted to share a few paragraphs from a section of my book dealing with children and gifts. 


When the disciples sought to push the children away, Jesus asked that they be brought to him. To such persons as these, belonged the kingdom of God (Mk 10:13-16; Mt. 19:13-15; Lk. 18:15-17). Children are often spoken of as the future of the church, but they’re more than the future, they’re gifted members of the body whose place in the body needs to be recognized.

Congregations have a responsibility to provide spiritual nurture and care to children, and to pass on to them the traditions of the faith. Churches, whatever the form and timing of their baptismal practices, face the issue of when a child truly becomes a member of the community in their own right and not simply as an extension of their family. Is it at Baptism or Confirmation (depending on tradition)? If so, then children in believer baptism communities find themselves in a different situation than those in infant-baptism communities.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Pentecost and Ministry - A Conversation

Pentecost is at hand. Jesus has ascended (Acts 1) and the people of God are waiting to know what comes next. Are we open to what God is about to do? If the Spirit is unfettered and the story of Acts is transforming, what does that mean for us today. Could we be entering a New Great Awakening as Diana Butler Bass (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening) suggests? These are the kinds of questions that Bruce Epperly and I talked about in an Energion Google Hangout.  Bruce and I speak specifically to our more liberal and progressive Christian compatriots who struggle with the idea of the Spirit and spiritual experience.

Our conversation centers on two books that deal with these issues.  The first is Bruce's book Transforming Acts: Acts of the Apostles as a 21st Century Gospel and my book Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, both of which come from Energion Publications.  So, as we move toward the coming of the Spirit, may this conversation prove to be a blessing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rightist Critics of Pope Francis -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Pope Francis and I don't see eye to eye on everything, but overall I'm a fan. He has given attention to poverty, climate change, violence and war. He is truly pro-life in the broadest sense of the word.  He does have his detractors, both within and without the Roman Catholic Church.  His fiercest critics might be right wing Catholics who dislike his political and economic positions. They disdain his outreach to persons like Gustavo Gutierrez and many on the right want him to "stay out of politics." He's been accused by politicians of not knowing his Bible, because most assuredly Jesus didn't tell us to help the poor. Well, enough of my introduction. Martin Marty takes a look at the Rightist critique and what it means for the church.  Take a read, won't you? 

Rightist Critics of Pope Francis 
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAY 18, 2015
Cliff Kincaid, Director of the AIM Center for Investigative Journalism       Screenshot: YouTube video
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Pope Francis enjoys universal acclaim. Almost.

While the pontiff is building bridges to Communists in Cuba, nuns who had been under suspicion, Muslims, Jews, Protestants and even people outside the faith, two dissenting groups stand out: Catholics on the Left, in whose eyes he is not moving fast enough with respect to church laws, policies, and theology to effect the changes which they regard as urgent, and Catholics on the Right, who are displeased by almost everything this pope says and does.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Passing the Baton - Lectionary reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Year B)

John15:26-27; 16:4b-15 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 15:26 “When the Advocate[a] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27 You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.  
            16:4b  “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you.But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate[a] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about[b] sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.  
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

                In a relay race, each member of the team has a purpose. The goal is, of course, to win the race, and winning requires team work. While it’s important to have fast runners, it’s also important that the four runners have the ability to pass the baton effectively from one to the next. If the baton is dropped or the runners aren’t in sync requiring the next runner to delay or slow their motion so as to get the baton passed, then it’s likely the race will be lost. Since most races are decided by a few hundredths of a second there is no room for error.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Salvation and the Church

Baptistry - St. James Avebury, UK
I have finished my Easter sermon series on the rich and complex vision of salvation present in Scripture and in the traditions of the church. While there is much more that I could say about salvation, I had to bring the series to a close. But, thinking back on that series, I felt like I needed to at least take note of the role that the church plays in process of salvation.  

As Cyprian put it in the third century, "Outside the Church there is no Salvation." In part this is due to the fact that the church had control of the sacraments, which were seen as the means of grace.  How else would you gain access to baptism and the Eucharist, but through the church. Since Cyprian placed a major emphasis on the role of the bishop (and thus the clergy), effective sacraments required clergy (who were in fellowship with the bishop, whose lineage was supposed to be linked to the apostles themselves. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Participants in the Divine Nature -- Salvation Series - Sermon #5

2 Peter 1:3-11

All good things must come to an end, and so while there is much more to say about salvation we come to the end of our journey this morning. Over the past several weeks we’ve discovered that salvation is a complex idea. Because it can be seen as otherworldly it can seem irrelevant and even off-putting. Let’s stick with the here-and-now. But, as we’ve seen salvation is about more than Jesus dying for our personal sins so we can get to heaven. Salvation includes reconciliation, liberation, healing, and taking on a new identity in Christ.

As we celebrate Ascension Sunday, it’s appropriate that we focus on salvation as union with God, or as we read in 2 Peter, in Christ we are becoming “participants in the divine nature.”  

Eastern Christianity tends to be more mystical than western forms. They place great emphasis on becoming one with God, and they use the Greek word theosis to describe this union. Theosis can be translated as deification, or as St. Athanasius, a fourth century theologian, put it: “He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God.” [On the Incarnation - Enhanced Version(p. 62).]