Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can’t Go Back Home! -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6B

Mark 6:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary[a] and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense[b] at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. 
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.


                It’s hard to go back home and have any real impact. I know that’s true for me. I loved growing up in my home town, but it placed limits on my ability to be myself. I had a reputation. It wasn’t a bad reputation; it’s just that not much was expected of me. I was sort of a face in the crowd. Going off to college opened up some new opportunities, but it was seminary that really opened things up. The old pecking order was gone, and I had an opportunity to start fresh. So, why go back home? Jesus may have asked himself that question after returning home to Nazareth.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Do We Need the New Testament? (John Goldingay) -- Review

DO WE NEED THE NEW TESTAMENT?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself Downers Grove, IL: IVPAcademic, 2015. 183 pages.

                Do we need the New Testament? Now that’s an odd question for a Christian biblical scholar to ask. Of course we need the New Testament. How else would we know about Jesus and the church’s earliest testimony about him? For many Christians the question has been the opposite. Why do we need the Old Testament? My own tradition has emphasized our identity as “New Testament Christians.” As I was recently reminded by a theologian who wrote a commentary on Deuteronomy, Christians often take a rather Marcionite view of the Old Testament/First Testament. The church may have declared Marcion a heretic for suggesting that the God of the Old Testament wasn’t the same as the God of Jesus, but in many ways we read the Bible in that fashion. At the very least, our tendency to read the Old Testament through a New Testament filter/lens causes the Old Testament to lose its ability to speak for itself. The First Testament (Goldingay’s preferred title for what Christians traditionally call the Old Testament) essentially becomes superfluous. It had its moment, but that moment has passed.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Mighty Have Fallen - Sermon for Pentecost 5B

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

On Friday afternoon, the President delivered the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine members of Emanuel AME Church who were gunned down the week before during Bible study. It is a powerful statement addressing the ills that confront our nation, including racism and violence. It is also a strong statement of the grace that redeems and heals. The President began his eulogy with these words: 
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.
After leading the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace,” the President intoned the names of those slain and called on the congregation and the nation to share in the grace that these nine had come to know:
Through the example of their lives, they've now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.
The circumstances were different, but the message David delivered when the news came that Saul and his son Jonathan had been killed in battle, carries with it that same sense of grace found in the President’s remarks.   

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Profundity of Marriage

Yesterday we witnessed a turning point in the history of the American people. The Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have the same right to be married as opposite-sex couples. While some fear that extending marriage to same-sex couples will undermine marriages like my own, I believe that the opposite might be true. The very fact that gay and lesbian couples have sought such state recognition of their unions could provide a strong witness to the straight community that this institution called marriage is not dead, but is very much alive!  

Friday, June 26, 2015

SCOTUS, Marriage, and the Church

I wasn't sure what I was going to write about today. I knew that a ruling by the Supreme Court on marriage equality was due at any time. It could have come today or perhaps next week.  So, as I sat down this morning with my coffee, looked at the latest news on the internet, I discovered that the Supreme Court had done what most of us expected. While, I was hoping for a larger majority, by a 5-4 vote the Court ruled that civil marriage must be extended to same-sex couples. It should not surprise anyone that Anthony Kennedy again wrote for the majority, as he has written most of the recent rulings affecting the LGBT community. Of course the legal battles have not ended, nor have all the implications of the ruling been uncovered, but this is a historic day. 

So, let me offer my initial reaction.  I've tried to remain rather quiet on the subject in recent months, in part because we're having our own conversations within the congregation. It's not that the congregation is unaware of my full support for marriage equality, it's just that I've been letting others share their perspective.  But on this day, I need to share a few thoughts.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Unholy Holy War -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

I must admit that I have not yet read through Pope Francis' encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, but fortunately Martin Marty has. In this week's edition of Sightings Marty takes note of both the negative responses, which decry the Pope's analysis of our situation in the name of unbridled free markets, what he terms an unholy holy war. Marty notes however that Francis' message is similar to or in the vein of a prophetic word found in scripture, which he remembers Bonhoeffer defining as "hope projected backwards." What he finds here then is a call to hope, and the good news is that over time words of support for Francis' message of joy and hope have emerged. May we also find hope in those efforts emerging to deal with the damaging effects of climate change.   

Unholy Holy War
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JUNE 22, 2015
                                                                                                               Credit: GongTo / Shutterstock
244. In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for "if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator". Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.                                                                      - Pope Francis, Laudato Si
“Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for our planet never take away the joy of our hope.” Pope Francis breathed that in paragraph 244 of his encyclical, Laudato Si, issued this week.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Day of Atonement (David de Silva) -- Review

DAY OF ATONEMENT: A Novel of the Maccabean RevoltBy David A. de Silva. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2015. 320 Pages.

                From the time of the Babylonian conquest of Judah in the sixth century BCE, the Jewish people lived under foreign domination. First the Babylonians, then the Persians, and then came the Greeks. The Babylonians had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Persians allowed for the people of Jerusalem to rebuild it in the fifth century. In many ways the Temple served as a beacon of Jewish identity. The High Priests served not only as religious leaders, but often as political ones as well. In these dual roles they tried to navigate between the needs of the people and the demands of the empires that held ultimate power. By the time the second century BCE rolled around, the region was caught up between the imperial designs of two Greek kingdoms—one centered in Egypt and the other in Antioch. Both kingdoms sought to Hellenize their domains, so that the regions would let go of their local customs and traditions and adopt Greek patterns of life, including Greek views of religion. The ultimate design was complete assimilation. In the middle of this Hellenized world lived the Jewish people, with their monotheistic exclusivism defining their identity. They simply found it difficult to assimilate, though there were partisans, mostly among the elite who sought to change that reality. The clash of cultures that finally erupted in the second century BCE led to a revolt that overthrew the dreams of the assimiliationists and their imperial mentors.  

                Although the story of this period is told in the four books of Maccabees, it is a story largely unknown to Christians. In part that is due to the fact that Protestants didn’t adopt these books into their canon, so they’re not read nor studied. One biblical scholar decided to take on this reality by turning to fiction to tell the story.  That scholar is David A. de Silva of Ashland Theological Seminary.   The writing of novels is an exercise that must be engaged in with great care and skill. Not everyone is a novelist, and biblical scholars are probably not programmed for such a work (I would agree to add in theologians as well).  So, when I decided to ask for a review copy of this novel, I did so with a wait and see attitude. I didn’t doubt the academic qualifications of the author, only his aptitude to tell a good story. I should add that I was intrigued by both the subject— the Maccabean Revolt -- and I have been following the author's career since I published what was probably his first published work many years ago when I was editing a graduate student journal for Fuller Theological Seminary. I must say I found the book well written and engaging. It is thought-provoking, engaging, and in line with what we know of the period and its peoples. The author does a good job developing the characters, some of whom the reader will come to empathize with, and others who you will not find very appealing. The most appealing characters are those caught between extremes, those who seek to be faithful to their religious identity while trying to navigate this new world.

Being that this is a historical novel, de Silva brings into the story historical characters such as the Seleucid king Antiochus IV and several of his advisors, as well as important Jewish figures including three high priests—Honiah, his more Hellenized brother Jason, and the rather evil and capricious Menelaus who seeks to completely throw off his Jewish identity and jump fully into the arms of Antiochus.  Of course, we also meet up with Mattathias and his five sons who not only led the Maccabean revolt, but helped establish a new semi-independent Jewish kingdom free from Seleucid control.  The novel is filled with intrigue, as different parties parry for control of the narrative. While we engage with these historical characters, it is the characters that de Silva creates who carry the story.  Binyamin and his brother Meir, one who refuses to assimilate and the other who tries to be faithful but who finds the Hellenistic world both fascinating and financially attractive, provide us with characters with whom we can identify. 

In his author’s note de Silva reveals that he has long been interested in the Apocrypha, which he first encountered as a child growing up in the Episcopal Church, which does provide for occasional readings from the Apocrypha. Over the years he has devoted scholarly study to these texts, including the books of Maccabees as well as other texts such as the Book of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, which shared the wisdom of ben Sira. The wisdom of this teacher of wisdom is referenced multiple times in the novel, providing another scriptural component to the story (even if it would not have been seen as scripture at that point in time). In addition, he brings in stories from Daniel, which provide encouragement to those who seek to resist Hellenization. From my reading of the novel, it appears that de Silva understands the stories of Daniel and his companions to have been passed down through the years, but not written down until the second century, when they were combined with apocalyptic revelations that emerged during the second century.  These scriptural elements help flavor and further the conversation.

Since this is a novel, and a reviewer doesn’t want to spoil the plot line, I need to limit my comments. What I can say is that the reader will gain a deeper insight into the challenges faced by second century BCE Jews as they sought to find their way in an increasingly alien world.  Standing in the middle of this story is the Temple, and the fight to preserve its uniqueness.  History tells of Antiochus’ defilement of the Temple, and the revolt it engendered. When the Hellenizers went too far, there was resistance and revolt.

One will find some similarities between that era and ours. I expect many readers will find themselves forced to look at the way they (we) accommodate our faith to culture. While this is a novel, the author taken great care to be faithful to the historical accounts and that is important to a reader like me. At the same time, no one really wants to read a boring novel.   I can saw that the story continues to move, with a mixture of danger, intrigue, battle, and even a bit of romance.  I should add that I’m not given to reading a lot of novels, but I found myself drawn into the story—not wanting to put it down.  So, not a bad combination—good history and good story.

So, if you’re interested in knowing more about the era of the Maccabees and want to read a good story, I would recommend this book highly!

Monday, June 22, 2015

A Time for Healing -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 5B

Mark 5:21-43 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat[a] to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. 22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet 23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” 24 So he went with him. 
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. 25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. 26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. 30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 He looked all around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. 34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” 
35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” 36 But overhearing[b] what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. 38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. 39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” 40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. 41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” 42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. 43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

                Jesus has long been known as one who heals. Wherever he went he healed people of various diseases and conditions, from leprosy to blindness. How he did it is a matter of discussion, especially in scholarly circles. Often these healing sessions took place on the Sabbath as a sort of challenge to the status quo expectations of his community. Jesus was nothing if not a provocateur, demonstrating time and again that people mattered more than principles! That is, love of neighbor should be the prime directive when it comes to how we relate to one another.  It is in this sense of purpose that we hear two interconnected stories of healing found in Mark 5. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Bigger They Are . . . Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 4B

David and Goliath

1 Samuel 17:32-49 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

32 David said to Saul, “Let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” 33 Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” 34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep sheep for his father; and whenever a lion or a bear came, and took a lamb from the flock, 35 I went after it and struck it down, rescuing the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned against me, I would catch it by the jaw, strike it down, and kill it. 36 Your servant has killed both lions and bears; and this uncircumcised Philistine shall be like one of them, since he has defied the armies of the living God.” 37 David said, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” So Saul said to David, “Go, and may the Lord be with you!” 
38 Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. 39 David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these; for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. 40 Then he took his staff in his hand, and chose five smooth stones from the wadi, and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Boom or Bust, Consumerism Is Still America's Religion -- Sightings (Bruce P. Rittenhouse)

We are a consumer driven society. Our economy is dependent on people buying things. Therefore, it would seem that the way that the nation sustains itself is by buying things, often things we really don't need. Our homes are filled with clothes and gadgets that we have purchased, probably because they made us feel good, but we really don't need. Bruce Rittenhouse, an ethicist, suggests that consumerism has a religious element to it. That is, it gives meaning to life. We buy because it produces a religious experience. Because we find meaning in buying, when push comes to shove, we will set aside the public good in order to feed our need to consume. That has, he believes, dangerous consequences for the nation.  It is a thought-provoking piece, so check it out. 

Boom or Bust, Consumerism Is Still America's Religion
                                                                                                                    Credit: Felipe Vidal / flickr
American consumer spending growth has been unusually slow since the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Does this signal the adoption of what two Washington Post  reporters describe as a “newfound prudence” and a permanent change in consumer psychology? Two recent studies contradict this view of American consumers’ “newfound” character and show that U.S. consumerism is alive and well.

Friday, June 19, 2015

When Racism and Murder Merge

Wednesday evening a group of people had gathered to study the Bible at the historic were meeting for Bible study at the historic Emanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. One of those who gathered for the study was a young white man, who apparently got up after about an hour and started shooting the people at the study. He killed nine, including the pastor, all of whom were African American. Most assuredly this young man was disturbed. Most mass killers are. But, whatever his mental state, his actions were racially motivated. However it occurred he had had his heart and mind corrupted by racism, and this combined with access to a firearm.  We can call this a crime of hate, and most assuredly it is one. I think that we should also be willing to call this an act of terror, for the purpose of hate-motivated acts of violence such as this is to instill terror and fear in the hearts of others. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Remembering and Forgetting

I am a historian by training, and so I have a vested interest in remembering the past. I get concerned when people discount the past and history. There is a richness in the past that gives foundation to what we believe and what we do. That said, as any historian will tell you, when creating a historical narrative you can't say everything. You have to decide what to include and what to exclude. Our own biases influence such choices. Anyone who says that they offer a fully objective historical account is not a historian!

I titled this post remembering and forgetting, for in living life we must do both. Some things must be forgotten so that we might remember.  Hebrew Bible professor John Goldingay (of Fuller Seminary) speaks of the way the Deuteronomist tells the history of Israel.  He notes that at the heart of Deuteronomy is  a deep fear about forgetting.  Memory he says is a "struggle against forgetting."  But we can't remember everything. Somethings need to be forgotten so we can remember the right things.

He writes:

While history in the sense of events of the past incorporates everything that has happened, memory not only could not do so, but should not do so if it is to fulfill its function. Forgetting is the companion of remembering in a good sense as well as a bad sense. There can be no such thing as an exhaustive narrative, and no such thing as an exhaustive memory. There has to be omission. Two contrary assertions are appropriate to the relationship between remembering and forgetting. Remembering excludes forgetting; remembering involves forgetting. [Do We Need the New Testament?: Letting the Old Testament Speak for Itself,  IVP, p. 121].
When we tell our story, that story will include stuff from the past. What we share will need to be crafted in a way that involves remembering and forgetting. There is no future without some roots in the past. Some of those roots are problematic. Some are life-sustaining. We may have to forget those things that prevent us from embracing the future, while finding life-giving memories that sustain us on the journey.  So don't forget -- remember the story of God!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

How Not to Kill A Muslim (Josh Graves) -- A Review

HOW NOT TO KILL A MUSLIM: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in North America. By Joshua Graves.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. Xii + 128 pages.

It is likely that we are not immune from making judgments based on stereotypes.  It's almost inevitable. The world is complex and complicated, and so we try to find ways to simplify the world by characterizing people and things. This requires us to prejudge people by making use of the assumptions of others.   Unfortunately, these characterizations are often incomplete or even untrue. Still, we make use of stereotypes to make sense of the world.

Many Christians, especially in the United States, have come to believe that Islam is by nature a violent religion that seeks to suppress women and encourages followers to take over the world. Now many Muslims have swallowed similar stereotypes of Christians. As a result, we approach each other (if we ever do so) in fear.

If we’re going to break free of our enslavement to unwarranted stereotypes, we need a competent guide. One of those competent guides is Josh Graves, a Church of Christ pastor living in metro-Nashville, who has ties to nearby Rochester College (Michigan).  The intriguingly titled book How Not to Kill a Muslim serves as a manifesto calling Christians as followers of Jesus to let go of our fear of the other and begin to enter into relationship with persons from the Islamic community, which is no more monolithic than the Christian faith. So, since God Muslims, there’s no need to try to kill them!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sleeping through the Storm -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4B

Mark 4:35-41 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) 
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

                When my son was very little the Northridge earthquake shook our apartment.  Although the quake struck miles away from where we lived, we knew it was a large quake.  When the quake hit we did what we believed was the correct thing—stand in the doorframe—but first we got Brett out of bed. Had we not done this, it’s likely he would have slept straight through the quake. When you’re young like that, not only do you sleep through things, you don’t know to be afraid of a bit of shaking.    

Monday, June 15, 2015

No More Fear

18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love[a] because he first loved us.  [1 John 4:18-19]
 There is no fear in love, only boldness. But, we all live with fear. I live with fear -- so do you.  And yet, if God is love and we live in God, then fear should not define our realities.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:23:37) one who is despised/an outcast becomes the neighbor to the one who lies in the ditch. The question that we probably need to wrestle with concerns who had the most fear in this exchange.  Did the two who walked away?  Perhaps. Could it have been the one in the ditch?  Could he have feared being helped by the Samaritan?  Or the Samaritan?  I don't know for sure. But I'm sure there was fear involved.

When we are faced with change or difficult situations in life, our tendency is to react (and usually to react is to act out of fear). When faced with the unknown, we tend to view things via stereotype. And stereotype feeds fear. And as Josh Graves writes regarding Christian-Muslim relations, but I think what he writes fits other issues that face us as individuals and communities including the church: "Fear allows a toxic view of what might be to trump the beauty of what is and the life-giving potential of what could be"  (How Not to Kill a Muslim: A Manifesto of Hope for Christianity and Islam in North Americap. 3). It seems that too often in church and society everything boils down to a zero-sum game. Either you win or I win, but we can't both have some room to maneuver.

With the prospect of the Supreme Court ruling, for instance, to overturn bans on gay marriage, the church is faced with the question of how to respond. I know that in the church I serve we are struggling with this. It is creating tension. It has the potential to divide. People could walk away from the church and from each other. I pray that this won't occur. I am trying as best that I can to look at things through the lens of God's perfecting love, but I know that fear can easily gain a foothold.  What is occurring in my congregation is occurring in many others across the land.  My prayer is that we will live in love and not fear, and that this love will be the bridge across which we can cross into God's new future..

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Divine Criteria -- Sermon for Pentecost 3B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Do you know what it feels like to be the last person chosen for the team? Neither team captain really wants you, but you have to go somewhere. While it’s not fun being in that position, maybe you’ll surprise your doubters! 

Let’s consider, for example, the annual NFL draft.  Each year teams covet certain players because they’re sure they’re going to make a difference. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. I think most of us will agree that Matthew Stafford has worked out pretty well for the Lions, but Cleveland can’t say the same for last year’s first round choice of Johnny “Football” Manziel, who might already be on his way out of the league.  There are always first round picks who end up as flops, while players picked in the later rounds, or even as undrafted free agents, can go on to be stars. I know that the Michigan fans in the room will remember a guy named Tom Brady. He went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six quarterbacks, none of whom did much of anything in the NFL, were drafted ahead of him. For some reason teams didn’t think that Tom Brady had much potential for greatness. Who knew?

Last Sunday we met up with King Saul, who looked like a king. Unfortunately there was something missing on the inside. Several chapters later, with things in Israel going from bad to worse, both Samuel and God find themselves regretting the choice. Saul might have been a mistake, but surely God can fix things.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Seeing the New Creation -- by faith not sight

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 Common English Bible (CEB)

6 So we are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. 7 We live by faith and not by sight. 8 We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. 9 So our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. 10 We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad. 

14 The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: one died for the sake of all; therefore, all died. 15 He died for the sake of all so that those who are alive should live not for themselves but for the one who died for them and was raised.
16 So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!

                As the weekend approaches, it is good to remember that for those who are Christians we live not be sight but by faith. As both the readings from 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 (the text I’m preaching Sunday) and Mark 4:26-34 (the Gospel for the week – see my reflections from earlier this week) remind us – there is more that goes on below the surface that we can’t see, so we must takes things by faith.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

No More Enemies

Jesus told us not to just love our friends, but love our enemies as well.  
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  [Matthew 5:43-48]
That's a tall order isn't it, especially if we're willing to admit that we really do have enemies.  I'm increasingly frustrated by the vitriol that I am hearing on all sides of the political and religious spectrum. We find it difficult to listen to others. We're content with stereotypes, probably because we're not in relationship with the people we perceive as being on the wrong side of things. Now I understand that there are issues of justice involved in many of our debates.  But that's not the point.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

#HestoNoNo -- Giants Baseball

There's a lot going on in the world -- religiously, culturally, and politically, the things I often comment on.  But on a morning when I just didn't know what to say, a gift was handed to me.  

Last night rookie pitcher Chris Heston, a player who wasn't even on the Giants radar as being a mainstay of their rotation at the beginning of the year, threw the first no-hitter of the year.  He is the first Giant rookie to throw a no-hitter in more than a century, and its only the 17th no-hitter in franchise history. He has been a godsend for the Giants, who are awaiting two veteran pitchers to come off the Disabled List. He's had a few bad games, but most of the time he's been great, and last night he was near perfect (with the exception of those three hit batsmen!).  Oh, there's another kicker to this -- two other young players, Matt Duffy and Joe Panik, each contributed a home run.  And did I report that Heston had two singles, one of which drove in two runs.

So today for my meditation I want to celebrate Chris Heston and his No Hitter!  Go Giants!

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Mysteries of God’s Realm - Lectionary Reflections for Pentecost 3B

Mark 4:26-34 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” 
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.


                I am not an expert landscaper. I plant things, including grass, and at times things go well and other times not so well.  I’m always happy when I sow grass seed, tend to it, and it comes up like I expected. At other times, no matter what I do, it doesn’t go well.  The same is true for the other aspects of my landscaping efforts.  The one thing I have learned is that no matter what you do, hostas will thrive! I’m not sure why. It remains a mystery. But these things can get really big!  

Monday, June 08, 2015

Milestone Anniversaries --June 8-9, 1985

Over a two day period thirty years ago, I had the opportunity to celebrate two milestones in my life. In many ways, probably in ways I didn't anticipate at the time, the course of my life was being set.  

The first of two milestones came on June 8, 1985.  This was my graduation from Fuller Theological Seminary with my Masters of Divinity degree.  I had gone to Fuller without a clear sense of purpose. I knew I wanted to go to seminary. I had intended to go to Emmanuel School of Religion, but when a friend described Fuller, I decided that was the place for me. So, in the fall of 1981, I packed up my Ford Maverick and took off from Oregon with $500 in my pocket and no job or housing in place in Pasadena. Looking back it seems sort of foolish to do what I did, but it all worked out. I got a room at the YMCA and got a job at Lighthouse Christian Stores, before starting school in January of 1982. Later that spring I met Cheryl, and well you know how that ended. So, thirty years ago today, I joined a large group of graduates crossing the stage to receive that M.Div. degree, which fulfilled a major requirement toward ordination.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Christ and Culture -- A Sermon for Pentecost 2B

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20

The Elders of Israel went to Samuel the prophet and judge, and told him it was time for a change in leadership. Yes, it was time to retire, and since his sons weren’t up to the job of leading them, they wanted a king, so they could be like all the other nations.  Apparently Samuel wasn’t thrilled with their request and so he complained to Yahweh. Yahweh told Samuel that the Elders weren’t rejecting Samuel’s leadership; they were rejecting Yahweh’s kingship.  While Samuel might have hoped for more backing from God, Yahweh told him to give the people what they wanted.  But, Yahweh told Samuel to warn the people about the downside of having a king.

   If they had a king, the king would want to control their lives. A king would draft their sons to serve in the military, take their crops and flocks, and essentially make them slaves.  Yes, as Louis XVI put it in Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part 1: “It’s good to be the king!”  

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Creeds, Church, the Individual and American Christianity

Americans worship the individual. We hold the individual to be sacrosanct, so that community comes second. That often includes family.  There is value in the principle of individual freedom. I'm glad I live in a country where I'm free to worship as I please and decide, within limits, my destiny. I'm free to choose the communities that I wish to be engaged with, from church to family. I even get to participate in choosing who will govern me, though my choices may not reach a majority. 

My own denomination, which was rooted in this American context has always prized the individual's right to interpret the Bible and affirm those aspects of faith that lie beyond the essentials, and the essentials are few -- mainly confessing Jesus to be the Christ (Matthew 16:16).  Beyond that I'm free to choose whether, for instance, I will affirm the Trinity and other elements of faith that appear in many statements of faith. So, there is in most of our congregations quite a bit of diversity of opinion on matters theological.

I'm okay with this way of doing things, otherwise I wouldn't be a Disciple. I've always prized the principle of unity in diversity. Our unity being found in Christ, so that we might be free to express our faith as we deem appropriate.  That being said, when we gather for corporate worship, we come not just as individuals doing our own thing. We come as a community in Christ, committing ourselves to living in communion with God in Christ as sisters and brothers.  

Friday, June 05, 2015

Charisma and Institution -- A Biblical Case Study

This Sunday I will be starting a summer journey through 1 and 2 Samuel, lectionary readings from the Hebrew Bible.  The reading for Sunday comes from 1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15.  In this reading the Elders of Israel come to Samuel and request a king, just like all the nations.  This isn't a welcome turn by Samuel (whose sons were administering things in his name) or even Yahweh, because Yahweh was king.   But the people wouldn't give up on this request, so Samuel goes out and finds Saul, who is a fine specimen of a man and even displays charismatic properties (he gets caught up with a group of ecstatic prophets).  Surely this was the right man. He has physical presence and he has charismatic properties.  You might say that he is spirit-filled.  If you know the story, things don't work out well for Saul or Israel. Eventually, he gets a bit caught up in himself and the Spirit leaves and he falls into insanity, especially as a young David begins to emerge as a rival.

So, what does this have to do with us?

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Karl Barth's Christological Ecclesiology (Kimlyn Bender) -- Review

KARL BARTH'S CHRISTOLOGICAL ECCLESIOLOGY.  New Paperback Edition. By Kimlyn J. Bender. Foreword by D. Stephen Long. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013.  Xix + 304 pages.

Karl Barth continues to influence Christian theological conversation long after his death in 1968. Even if the heyday of Neo-Orthodoxy is long past, you cannot do theology even today without at least taking stock of his work.  His influence is especially felt among the Post-Liberals, but many progressive Evangelicals have found him to be extremely influential. I know that my own theological development during my seminary years took place in conversation with his theology (I was fortunate to take a Barth seminar with Geoffrey Bromiley, who translated much of Barth’s work into English).  In the end, one needn't be a Barthian to learn from him. You just have to be open to engaging his ever evolving system. 

While Barth’s written corpus is much larger than his Church Dogmatics, this theological enterprise that emerged over many decades, is the most important expression of his theology.  As one might expect, he devoted considerable energy to ecclesiology, much of it appearing in the four part volume four, which focuses on reconciliation.  Trying to navigate his work is not easy, and so it is good that Kimlyn Bender, a theology professor at Truett Seminary/Baylor University, has written what I believe will be the definitive guide to Barth’s ecclesiology for the foreseeable future.  This book, published by Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock) offers us a new paperback edition, making it more accessible than the earlier (more expensive) hardback version published by Ashgate. The fact that Wipf and Stock chose to publish it under its top Cascade label, which is almost always a brand new book, rather than the Pickwick or Wipf and Stock labels suggests that the editors at the publisher believed this needed a wide audience.  For the most part I am in agreement with them, for Barth is a worthy conversation partner as we seek to better understand what the church will look like in the coming decades. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Ringing the Changes on Change -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Since taking over as Pope, Francis has been slowly turning the ship called the Catholic Church away from its recent fascination with culture war issues, pointing to the importance of compassionate ministry, especially among the poor. Not everyone is happy with the changes within the church, though Francis has a lot of supporters. While Francis hasn't signaled a change in his lack of support for marriage equality, he does seem to understand the importance of change. As Martin Marty notes, there are within the Catholic tradition resources that can help them and all of us deal with the reality that sometimes change just is needed!  The recent vote in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland to embrace same-sex marriage (by a huge margin) has gotten Catholic leaders, at least in Ireland, paying attention to the changes afoot.  The question is -- are the rest of us aware?  Take a read!

Ringing the Changes on Change
By MARTIN E. MARTY   June 1, 2015
Carmelite sisters vote on a referendum on same-sex marriage, Ireland (May 22, 2015)           Credit: Peter Morrison / AP Photo
NOTESightings has a new comment policy. When you email a comment to DivSightings@gmail.com, if you would like it to be added to the article archived 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].

This now-passing spring we have heard and seen changes in the religious spheres, which get described as “stunning,” “startling,” and more. We’ll reach into our internet deposit for just two which have shaken the world of Catholics and millions of their neighbors.

First, the drastic change in attitudes toward same-sex marriage in, of all places, Catholic-Ireland, and in many other places.

Second, the turn Catholic leadership is being asked to take (by Pope Francis and his spiritual kin) to put less accent on alienating energies in “the culture wars” and more on what the pope finds to be urgent and Christ-like such as caring for the poor and the powerless and working for justice.

Critics regularly point out that many of the Pope’s accents and policy proposals contradict things he said and did years ago. That’s the point, says the pontiff: it’s called “repentance” and “new life.”

This is not the day to detail the plentiful stories in the news or in expressions by many Catholics “down the block.” They deserve and get media treatment; one could add little new in a short columns like Sightings’.

Instead we’ll focus for a moment on what “change” itself means in the current life of the Catholic Church, which, we are regularly reminded, is the globe’s oldest and largest organization. And, we are also reminded, it is often advertised as resistant to change, lest its hold on truth seem shaky or its leadership fickle. You know e.g., the mass in Latin, “everywhere” and “always,” was a sign of guaranteed truth and offered the experience of comfort in a world of flux everywhere else.

Reading the debates about changes in Catholicism, religion, and culture, prompts me to reach into my mental grab bag about change, perhaps offered in my commencement-addresses past.

Three samples:

If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.” Many of us misattributed this saying to Edmund Burke, who would have said it if he knew how we needed it, but most now trace it to one Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland. It characterizes the attitude and proclaimed policy of Catholic conservatives. They might protest the drastic change in Catholic-Ireland’s rejection of inherited positions. But the majorities of Catholic faithful, and more and more of their leaders, see that on many fronts it is necessary to change. So, as the Pope counsels on diverse subjects, it is important to read the signs of the times and respond, perhaps, sometimes, to change.

While some glory and triumph in these recent changes, one should not be lofty, snide, or unthinking about those who are having trouble dealing with these changes. So, saying number two: “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” Richard Hooker observed this, to the comfort of those who resist specific changes. Perhaps some of the changes are for the better, as the Pope reminds them, while giving signs that he himself is not going to turn fickle and go along with everything.

Finally, from the high-minded John Cardinal Newman, who spoke with more ease about the possibilities of perfection than this Protestant is allowed to do, even as we bask in the light of its promise: “In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” We may not go along with all this implies, but we get enough glimmers of hope for such change from the Pope at least to entertain some possibilities of change in our “below” time.

We’ll keep sighting the signs, and reporting in the seasons ahead.


Hakim, Danny and Douglas Dalby. “Ireland Votes to Approve Gay Marriage, Putting Country in Vanguard.” New York Times, May 23, 2015, Europe.http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/24/world/europe/ireland-gay-marriage-referendum.html.

O’Connor, Joseph. “Ireland is a kinder, fairer place after voting for same-sex marriage.” The Guardian, May 23, 2015, Opinion.http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/24/same-sex-vote-makes-ireland-a-kinder-fairer-place.

Gardels, Nathan. "Weekend Roundup: Pope Francis Resurrects Liberation Theology -- Without Marx." WorldPost, May 29, 2015. http://www.theworldpost.com.

Wooden, Cindy. “Pope Francis: God will judge people on care for the poor, for the planet.” National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2015, Catholic News Service.http://ncronline.org/blogs/eco-catholic/pope-francis-god-will-judge-people-care-poor-planet.

O’Connell, Gerard. “Pope Francis: To Care for the Poor is Not Communism, It is the Gospel.” American: The National Catholic Review, January 11, 2015, Dispatches.http://americamagazine.org/content/dispatches/pope-francis-care-poor-not-communism-it-gospel.

Moloney, Liam. “Pope Francis Says Church Has Cared for Poor Since Beginning: Pope Says Attention to Poor ‘Isn’t an Invention of Communism.’” Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2015, Europe. http://www.wsj.com/articles/pope-francis-says-church-has-cared-for-poor-since-beginning-1420985288.

Image: Carmelite sisters cast their vote at a polling station in Malahide, County Dublin, Ireland, May 22, 2015. Ireland voted on a referendum on Gay marriage which will require an amendment to the Irish Constitution. (Peter Morrison / AP Photo).

To comment: email the Editor, Myriam Renaud, at DivSightings@gmail.com. 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: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings-policies.
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  www.memarty.com.
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