Monday, November 30, 2015

Advent: Preparation for What?

Virgin and Child -
6th century Byzantine

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel

Advent is a time of preparation. It is rooted in the longing to see the Son of God appear, for the promise is that Emmanuel shall appear to us.  While there is the urge to jump start Christmas by displacing Advent, Advent plays an important role in our spiritual journeys.  There is, of course, an apocalyptic aspect to the season, for at least some of the lectionary texts speak of a sudden inbreaking of God's realm.  

While this is a season of preparation, it is good not to lose sight of the primary message of the larger season that connects Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. God is coming. God is here. We're not alone. At the moment one of the books I'm reading is William Willimon's How Odd of God: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching. The book is a reflection on preaching in conversation with Karl Barth and his doctrine of election.  While many discussions of election speak of whether God chooses one person over another, for Barth election has to do with the incarnation, and it is a choice that precedes the fall. I thought that this reflection from Willimon on Barth, election, and the incarnation would resonate for the season.

Suggesting that for Barth the key text relating to incarnation and election is 2 Corinthians 5:19, Willimon writes: 

Jesus Christ is not only the demonstration of God's electing love but also its active, personal, present agent. Incarnation is not a divine strategy, an afterthought set somewhere in an unreachable past. Incarnation is who God, God reaching to us, through election, in the present. Incarnation is understood neither as divine humiliation (Luther) nor as God's hiding in human flesh (Calvin) but rather as full revelation of God's condescension, the actual being of God. God has refused to render us the violence we deserve, that is God has refused to relate to us as we relate to others. At every turn God matches our blustering no with God's gracious yes. (How Odd of God, p. 33).
"Incarnation is who God is." According to Willimon, reflecting on Barth's doctrine of election, incarnation -- embodied presence with us is not foreign to God, but it is who God is. God is spirit, that is true, but spirit doesn't mean having no embodied presence. This Advent, let us reflect on what it means to be in communion with the embodied presence of God.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Promises Fulfilled -- Advent 1C

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”   [Jeremiah 33:14-16 (NRSV)]

Since I'm not preaching this morning, I thought I might share a brief reflection on the reading from the Hebrew Bible. It is a word from Jeremiah to exiles, who worry about their future.

We all want to live lives that are safe and secure. It's true there are those who push the boundaries of safety, but even climbers and skydivers try to make sure that there actions are relatively safe. There is a thrill of defying the odds, but it's a good chance one will survive.  In daily life, however, we like security. We lock our doors. We wear our seat belts while driving, Many of us buy life insurance, just to be safe. 

Jeremiah writes to members of the Jewish community living in exile. He tells them that the days are coming when God will fulfill the promises made to the people. There will be a day when the people will be saved and safe, for "the Lord is our righteousness." We live in a dangerous world. We know about the dangers of living in places like Syria and Iraq. After all millions are fleeing the region. But a gunman in Colorado Springs reminds us that our safety can be challenged at home. More often than not the threat comes not from outside our communities, but within. Indeed, much of the violence perpetrated in this country is found within the family structure. Domestic violence makes the home less than safe. Diana Butler Bass writes:

Home is a vulnerable space, offering possibilities of care and tenderness to be sure, but also an open pathway for those who choose to make psychological, emotional, or physical advantage. Indeed, home-centered violence can be so destructive that some social scientists refer to it as "intimate terrorism." [Grounded, p. 177] 
Ancient Judah experienced the violence of exile. They had lost everything. They could easily lost hope, but Jeremiah tells them to hang on. The days are coming when God will act in fulfillment to promises made. We need to stand against violence in all its forms. We need stand with those who are confronted by such violence, for the Lord is our righteousness. 

May we take this Advent journey with an eye and ear toward those who live with the threat of violence and hopelessness. May we be agents of grace and hope to them in this season of joy, so that a sense of security might cover them.   

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Searching for Home

For many Thanksgiving Weekend is a time to travel back home.  Whether flying or driving, Americans are on the move this weekend.  It's been a long time since my family traveled "home." In fact, I've not been to "my home" for Thanksgiving since perhaps my college days. Part of the reason is vocational.  The other piece is that we live far away from our "hometowns" and our families.  So, we make new traditions -- a visit to Golden Corral and a movie!  It works for us.  But the focus of the weekend (if we discount shopping and football) connects with a point made by Diana Butler Bass in her book Grounded.

She writes of what she calls the overarching narrative of the Bible.

The overarching narrative of the Bible is that of humanity searching for home. In the beginning, God created the beautiful earth as our home, but we carelessly misused it, resulting in exile from our natal place. The rest of the story recounts how we either faithfully sought God's homeland or sinfully abused it, with consequences of blessing or curses. Throughout, a spiritual interplay emerges: not only did God create our earthly home, but God is our home.   [Grounded, (HarperOne, 2015), p. 169]
Although Diana doesn't reference Augustine in her book, nor the statement, her summation correlates with a well known statement of St. Augustine's Confessions:

Thou movest us to delight in praising Thee; for Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.
Our hearts are restless, for we are on a journey toward God. And, as Diana shows, home and family takes on many different forms, not all of which are blood related.  But home is the habitation of God. So wherever we are and with whom we are with at that moment.  Thanks be to God! 

Friday, November 27, 2015

Religious Children More Ungenerous? -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

It is the day after Thanksgiving and all through the land, many a creature is stirring, seeking out the best deals on things needed and unneeded. As I write this, I've yet to venture out into the world of the shopping frenzy. Yesterday was set aside for us to stop and consider for a moment what we're thankful for. So, perhaps it is a good day to finally re-post Martin Marty's comments on a recent study that suggests that religious children are less generous than non-religious children. The point of the study, as detailed below, was to see whether religion is required for morality and altruism. The findings suggest not. While we can critique the study and its basis -- that's something we might do with any survey, including the one that tell us bacon is bad for us, perhaps we might take something different from this. As Marty suggests maybe we can take this as cause to look inside the community to see if there is truth to the charge. With that I invite you to read and consider whether we Christians are truly a generous and gracious people. Truth be told, there is a lot of evidence stacked against us. Maybe this is a wake up call!

Religious Children More Ungenerous?
By MARTIN E. MARTY   NOV 23, 2015
Photograph: Olga Bogatyrenko /
“Crisis-talk,” including talk about religious crises, dominates media and discourse currently. Terrorism. Migration. Economies. Morality. These and others are big-screen topics, but they reflect the small accumulating evidences.

Pandit Nehru observed that “every little thing counts in a crisis.” These November days, suddenly, an apparently “little thing” won big attention, and it promises, or threatens, more. It has to do with a single experiment at The University of Chicago (see “Sources” for details).

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Every Good and Perfect Gift -- A Thanksgiving Reflection

Central Woodward Christian Church 

Thanksgiving Day has arrived once again. Whether we are spending the day with family or friends or alone, whether we are watching football or perhaps working, it is right and good to spend a few moments offering words of thanksgiving to God.  My reflections are rooted in this statement from the book of James. I've chosen to use the words from the King James Version.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (James 1:17 KJV). 
 Every good and perfect gift comes to us from God our Creator, therefore we give thanks.  The Psalmist declares:
It is good to give thanks to the Lord,    to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning,    and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp,    to the melody of the lyre.  For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;    at the works of your hands I sing for joy.  (Ps. 92:1-4)

I realize these are difficult days for many. I am mindful of the refugees streaming out of Syria and Iraq. I know that their cries for help are falling on deaf ears in many parts of this country. I know that violence is rampant throughout the land -- near and far. Nonetheless, I do believe that God is good and that God provides us with good and perfect gifts that will sustain us. We are part of a wondrous creation that God has pronounced good. I suppose the question for us on this day concerns what we will do with these gifts?  For starters we should be good stewards of the creation that surrounds us. 

The picture posted here was taken Sunday. There is a circle in the driveway.  There is a cross, a large rock, and a peace pole. These are signs of God's gifts of grace and peace, as well as God's steadfastness.  So, on this day of thanksgiving let us sing out with joy, knowing that God the Provider is with us and amongst us.  

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Watching for Signs of the Kingdom - Lectionary Reflection - Advent 1

Luke 21:25-36 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 

34 “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly,35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”


                We are living in an apocalyptic moment. At least it is easy to read the situation at hand in an apocalyptic manner. Things seem to be coming to a head. The battle lines are being drawn and the various military forces are gathering.  The Middle East seems to be in a constant state of chaos, with violence the norm. I was talking to a couple of friends who happen to be Muslim, and they are worried that this will lead to another World War that would erupt in the Middle East. For some this would be “good news.” We’ve been hearing from certain sectors of the Christian community for several decades that the we live in the last days, and thus the outbreak of a world war in this region would be the sign that the end has come. The only thing lacking, it would seem, is a rebuilt Jewish Temple. According to some accounts this is a necessary prerequisite, but perhaps not. If all the parties are present—Russia, China(?), the United States, France, Israel, and the many varying Islamic nations ranging from Saudi Arabia to Iran are present. Isn’t this all laid out somewhere in Revelation or maybe Daniel? In the aftermath of the attacks in Paris the great powers do seem ready to engage in a major military operation, which is fueling this apocalyptic fever. The only question left concerns who will light the match to set off the explosion that will trigger Armageddon.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World (Otis Moss III) -- A Review

BLUE NOTE PREACHING IN A POST-SOUL WORLD: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair.  By Otis Moss III. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xiv + 127 pages.

                Preaching is a calling. It is also an art. Preaching draws on particular cultural and societal forms of communication, and it is reflected in the personality of the one in the pulpit (if one preaches from a pulpit). I start from a particular social location. I am white, male, Mainline Protestant, and I have an academic background as well. I learned particular styles in college and seminary and have a style that seems appropriate to my own personality. That said, it is important that we continually take into consideration the world around us and draw from forms that might not be as natural to our own realities. It is with this context in mind that I read Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World. The author is a preacher serving a predominantly African American congregation of the United Church of Christ. It is both progressive and rooted in a distinctly Afro-centric context. 

                Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World is authored by Otis Moss III, the senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ of Chicago, making him the successor to Jeremiah Wright. The book is comprised of two parts. Part one brings to us Moss’s Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale University Divinity School. The Beecher Lectures are among the most prestigious religious lectures in the country. Part two reprints four sermons that reflect the vision expressed in the published lectures.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

He’s Coming Back - A Sermon for Christ The King Sunday

Revelation 1:4b-8

Over the next few days we’ll have an opportunity to consider the blessings that have been poured out upon us by God. It really doesn’t matter where we gather. The important thing is to stop and offer words of praise to God, “from whom all blessings flow.” We’ll have at least two community opportunities to share in words of Thanksgiving before Thursday. Tonight the Troy-area Interfaith Group is hosting a service at the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills. Then on Tuesday evening the Troy Clergy Group is sponsoring a service at Northminster Presbyterian. We also have the opportunity this morning to offer up symbols of gratitude to God through signs of our commitment to the life and ministry of this congregation.

These celebrations occur under the shadow of the recent terrorist attacks in Mali, Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, that have raised our anxiety levels. Fear seems to be taking hold of many in our midst, and there are people and groups who are making use of this fear for political ends. Even as people flee the violence in the Middle East, political leaders from across the country, including close at home, are shutting the door of welcome to those fleeing this violence. The good news is that other voices are being raised within the faith community reminding us of our calling by God to welcome the stranger.  Disciples and United Church of Christ leaders have issued a statement calling on the nation to live up to its better nature and welcome those who flee violence. Week of Compassion and Church World Service are providing support for refugees that reflect the vision cast in the closing words of this statement by our leaders:
We are called to be a merciful and caring community; to seek justice and to honor every person; and to stand up and shout out when such a vision is challenged or violated. We urge caution and caring in our discourse and in our actions, so that we all may hold ourselves to a higher standard and ideal.
We’re hearing similar statements from across the religious spectrum – conservative, liberal and in between. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals made this statement:  “We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but we must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need some place to go.” 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Welcoming the Stranger and the Refugees

Flight into Egypt - Jacopo Bassano
Toledo Museum of Art

The Bible is full of refugees stories. Jacob and his family left Canaan for Egypt because of famine. Moses and the Israelites fled Egypt for the Promised Land because Pharaoh had forgotten Joseph. Jesus was himself a refugee, his family fleeing Herod and finding refuge in Egypt. The lesson here is that because the people of God have been refugees and migrants -- strangers in strange lands -- they should welcome the stranger. It is stated in Deuteronomy, as part of the summary of the law: "You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:19). 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Disciples, UCC make joint statement on refugees

In light of the recent terrorist attacks by ISIS and Boko Haram in France, Beruit, and Nigeria (along with the earlier bombing of a Russian plane, there has been increasingly strident responses from political leaders in response. This includes the County Executive here in the county where I live. As a Disciples pastor I would like to share this joint statement of the leaders of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.

Last Updated 11/17/15
 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” 37Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” 40And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.”—Matthew 25:36-40
 In the past few days, we have shared in the public and global outpouring of sympathy and support for the victims, their families, and the people of France, Lebanon, and Russia. We reiterate that expression of solidarity, and our condemnation of these acts of violence, all of which have been claimed by the “Islamic State.”

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Grounding the Church

On Monday I posted a lengthy review of Diana Butler Bass's wonderful new book Grounded: Finding God in the World - A Spiritual Revolution. I will admit to have struggled with the book and that came out in the review (perhaps a bit too strongly). Nonetheless, I am in large-part in agreement with the premise of the book. The premise is this, if we're focusing our attention on the institution and its welfare we've missed the point of faith, which is God.

Now, as I noted in the review due to my current context as a pastor of a small mainline congregation that struggles to connect with the world, I like many colleagues tend to ask what may be the wrong question -- how will this help the church?  My situation may not be unique, but there is an added element to my story. You see, a very long time ago my church was one of the most important in the denomination. The pastors were celebrated preachers and leaders. Times changed and by the late 70s we had left our  neo-Gothic cathedral for smaller digs in the suburbs. There aren't many left in the congregation that remember what was, and so its hold in the imagination continues to decline in its power. But even this building, at least the sanctuary, feels empty on a Sunday morning. We think we have something to offer, but we're not connecting.  In a conversation with Diana since I posted the review I used the image of an antenna, suggesting that those seeking God, the ones  who in previous years might have sought out a more progressive church don't have their antennae up so we can connect. Later I realized that a more adequate analogy might be frequency. We're not broadcasting on the same frequencies. So, maybe we need to change our frequency rather than expect them to change theirs.

While I believe that the church has a role to play in the work of God, I know that God is not limited to the church (the reason why I can't get on board with Scot McKnight's recent work that in my mind overly connects the kingdom of God with the church). Like Diana I believe that God loves the world (the whole world) and that God is at work reconciling that world to God and to itself.  With that in mind, there is a piece in the book, reflecting on the message of John 3:16 that I think is poignant for our times.

John 3:16 is not a call to personal salvation or revivalist fervor. Instead,  it offers a glimpse of Christianity's central cosmology. The emphasis is on the first line, and the verse essentially says, "God so loved the universe, that God entered the cosmos in the form of a gift, the gift of Jesus, that we might trust in this divine presence and experience abundance. It is not a story of getting saved from hell unless that hell is the one we are making through our destruction of the atmosphere. Rather, it is the Christian way of saying that God dwells in the universe we also inhabit, that we might experience the life of heaven here and now. [Grounded, p. 122]
Diana takes note of an assessment of the message here by a Danish theologian who speaks of this as "deep incarnation," even using Lutheran eucharistic language to describe this reality as "the manifestation of God 'in, with, under, and as' flesh."

Where is God? Well God might be found in places we're not expecting.  Diana writes that "In Christian theology, Jesus brings together sky and earth, the God who dwells with us, John 3:16 proclaims that this divine indwelling is life. Other religions say similar things in different ways -- God is closer than we imagine, and the ever active spirit is animating the world."  [p. 123]

I'm still trying to figure out what all this means, but  since this is an important conversation, there is more to come! If there is hope for the church, then that hope will likely come from being grounded in the God who is to be found in the world and not locked behind the church doors. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Public Orthodoxy - Sightings (Martin Marty)

We don't often hear about the Orthodox Christian Tradition, that eastern branch of the Christian faith that to some is exotic and even attractive as a spiritual tradition, but probably not as a public voice. Martin Marty has chosen to take notice of a journal titled Public Orthodoxy, which seeks to bring the broad Orthodox tradition into the public conversation. Since Orthodox Christianity has lived in recent centuries in the shadow of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic world, as well as in the Shadow of the Soviet system for much of the 20th Century, it is worth attending to. Thus, I invite you to read and converse!

Public Orthodoxy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   NOV 16, 2015
His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew visits the Archbishop of Canterbury to discuss the climate crisis ahead of the U.N. Summit in December. (11.02.15)  Photograph: Lambeth Palace
When a message from Public Orthodoxy reaches us, we read it and resolve to do better at sighting Eastern Orthodoxy for this e-column. The subtitle of Public Orthodoxy is “Bridging the Ecclesial, the Academic and the Political,” which points to three zones of interest to us and, presumably, to our readers.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What Kind of King Are You? - Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday

John 18:33-37 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

33 Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

                It has been said that despite its faults, democracy is the best governmental system available. It’s not always efficient, but it allows the populace to get involved. Occasionally we will see attempts to update our theological language and cast Jesus and God in the modern clothes of democracy. Thus, we get Jesus the President rather than Jesus the King. The only problem with Jesus the President is that we didn’t get to elect him to the position. Rather God elects Jesus to reign. As this is Christ the King Sunday (Reign of Christ), we are invited to ponder what it means for Christ to be king (not president).  The Gospel reading comes from John. While this is the last Sunday of the Church Year (next week we start all over with the first Sunday of Advent), the Gospel reading takes us to Good Friday. Jesus has been arrested and he is being questioned by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate represents the reigning power—the emperor of Rome, Tiberius. Now there are kings of sort in the empire, people like Herod Antipas, but they derive their power from Rome. In other words, they’re really Roman governors with a fancier title. Pilate is of the understanding that Jesus has been claiming the title of king, and has been doing so without the permission of Rome. So Pilate wants to know: what kind of king are you?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Grounded (Diana Butler Bass) - A Review

GROUNDED: Finding God in the World -- A Spiritual Revolution. By Diana Butler Bass.  San Francisco: Harper One, 2015. 308 pages.

            A number of years ago, Diana Butler Bass (the author of the book under review) and I were comparing life stories. We noticed quite a number of parallels. We both started out our religious lives in traditional mainline Protestant churches, converted to evangelicalism, attended Christian colleges, graduated from evangelical seminaries, and then pursued doctorates in church history. While I pursued ordination, she didn’t. I ended up as a pastor and she became a noted speaker and author (often speaking to groups of pastors that included me). I have read most of her books and find her to be a thoughtful and provocative writer. Her book Christianity for the Rest of Us (her first with Harper One) offered a word of encouragement to those of us in the mainline. Despite declining numbers in our denominations good things were happening. God was at work. In her most recent book prior to Grounded, Christianity after Religion, the message wasn’t quite as positive. Perhaps those churches she profiled in Christianity for the Rest of Us were more the exception than the rule. Perhaps God was up to something that included the church, but wasn’t limited to the church. She spoke there of a “New Great Awakening.” I found her message compelling and drew upon it as I finished my own book on spiritual gifts (Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening). In this previous book the message seemed to be that one could and should be both spiritual and religious.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Matters Most: Provision - A Stewardship Sermon

1 Kings 17:8-16

What matters most? And how do you measure that? These are the questions that our stewardship theme raises. We’ve heard a word about generosity. We’ve heard a word about money. Now we hear a word about provision. 

When Jesus told the man to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, the man walked away because he had too many possessions. He wanted to enjoy the presence of God, but apparently his possessions stood in the way (Mark 10:17-31). Like many of us, he was a hoarder who found it difficult to walk by faith.

This morning we have heard part of the story of the prophet Elijah, who had gotten himself into trouble with the king of Israel. Even if you’re a messenger of God, getting in trouble with a king is dangerous. Elijah got in trouble because he told King Ahab and his wife Jezebel that since the king had set up altars to the Phoenician storm god Baal, God was going to stop the rain from falling. When a drought fell upon the land, Elijah had to leave. What is interesting and maybe even ironic, is that Elijah headed toward the Phoenician city of Sidon. Here was a prophet of Yahweh seeking refuge in the land of Baal. 

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Legacy Greater Than I-Thou: A Usable Bible and a Usable Martin Buber - Sightings (Claire Sufrin)

Many have heard of Martin Buber, if for no other reason, his book I and Thou, but as Claire Sufrin details, there is much more to Buber than I-Thou. More important is his work with the Bible, and the way he understood Saga,  I invite you to read and consider what Buber has to say to us about a usable Bible!

A Legacy Greater Than I-Thou: A Usable Bible and a Usable Martin Buber 
Martin Buber             
What can German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber still offer us fifty years after his death?

Best known for his landmark book, I and Thou, which describes the possibility of encountering God when fully present to another person, Buber (1878-1965) was also a close reader of the Hebrew Bible. He translated the Bible into German with Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig; wrote books of thought-provoking biblical commentary; and reflected on its content in numerous essays that continue to be studied and discussed.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Challenge of Preaching (John Stott and Greg Scharf) -- Review

THE CHALLENGE OF PREACHING. By John Stott. Abridged and Updated by Greg Scharf.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Xii + 132 pages.

If you’ve had any involvement in the Evangelical movement over the past half century you’ve likely encountered John Stott. He was a leading figure in the movement, but being that he was both British and Anglican, he had the ability to transcend boundaries. He was popular at Fuller and I had the opportunity to hear him speak to a large audience gathered at a relatively progressive Presbyterian church in Santa Barbara, California. Nonetheless he was both evangelical and relatively conservative on most issues.
            Stott died in 2011 at the age of ninety, probably a decade after I heard him speak. Career-wise he spent most of his adult life as the minister at All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, in London. At the same time, he was a well-traveled speaker and author.  He wrote on a variety of topics, both biblical and theological. He also wrote on preaching—with one of his better known books bearing the title Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, which appeared in 1982. I was just beginning my seminary career when it came out, though I don't remember reading it (I'm sure I leafed through it since we had a copy on the shelves at the Christian bookstore where I worked at the time).  The book reappears now in an abridged and updated edition. The person responsible for the abridging and updating the book is Greg Scharf, a professor of pastoral theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. We are told that Scharf worked closely with Stott at both All Soul's Church in London and at TEDS, and had the permission of Stott to undertake this work.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

To Whom Do We Owe Allegiance?

As a child I had a classmate who remained seated as the rest of us stood to say the “Pledge of Allegiance.” While we pledged our allegiance to the nation symbolized by the flag, thinking nothing of the religious implications of our act, my classmate, who happened to be a Jehovah’s Witness, had been taught that to stand and recite the pledge would break one of the Ten Commandments—the one about having no graven images. At the time I didn’t understand why he refused to stand and say this innocuous statement, but when I think about it now it does give me pause. While his religious community refuses to acknowledge any government besides God’s kingdom (they don’t vote or serve in the military either), most of us live with a Constantinian vision.
Most Christians don’t see anything wrong with pledging allegiance to the symbol of our national identity. In fact, many American Christians have equated their Christianity with their national loyalty. After all, isn’t the United States a “Christian Nation”? Yes, God and Country go together! The Scouts even have a badge you can earn that celebrates this. Of course, other nations have felt the same way. In fact, they have assumed that God was on their side during serious conflicts. The German Christian movement even reconfigured the Christian faith to fit its ideology. I wonder if we do the same? Do we discount the teachings of Jesus when they come into conflict with our national aspirations?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Football - Sightings (Martin Marty)

I must confess my love of football. I'm an ardent fan of the Oregon Ducks. I have long been a fan of the 49ers, though I have had a wandering eye over the years that led in the 1970s to an embrace of the Pittsburgh Steelers and living as I do in Metro Detroit, I join with long-suffering Lion's fans in hoping that one day success will be visited upon them. At the same time, I understand that this is a violent sport that can lead to serious long-term injuries, including dementia. There is even something verging on the demented with regard to the business side of things. NFL games are played on Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays on multiple channels. Even college football has become big business, with the coaches pulling down salaries in the millions, dwarfing what even the presidents of institutions make. And yet, I love my football.  So what do we make of all of this -- from a faith perspective?  Martin Marty offers us some suggestions as he overlooks Soldier Field from his condo.

By MARTIN E. MARTY   NOV 9, 2015
Young player down after a tackle during a Broncos vs. Eagles game, Cumming, GA. (10.17.09)
Credit: Susan Leggett /
The jumbotron at Soldier Field, visible from our condo window, offers a colorful set of images on Sundays when the Chicago Bears are at home. It displays more liturgical colors than can the devotees of other religions still trying to attract worshippers on what Christians used to call “the Lord’s Day.”

In this scandal-filled football season, with stories of dementia and deaths increasingly common, it should be easy to raise questions about the morality of the national sport. It isn’t.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Beginning of the Birth Pangs - A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 25B

Footprint -- Old Sarum Cathedral 

Mark13:1-8 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

13 As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” 
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’[a]and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

            It is the scholarly consensus that Mark is the first gospel to be written gospel. It is also assumed that it was written sometime after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  A major clue is found in this passage, where Jesus takes note of the Temple and its impending destruction. The destruction of this holy site serves as the starting point for an apocalyptic discourse, in which Jesus gives answer to the question of when the times of trouble will take place.   
            I have had my moments of interest in things apocalyptic. I was taken in by the message of Hal Lindsey and others like him during my high school days. We took some pleasure in our attempts at figuring out where we stood in the divine time scheme. Were we truly living in the last days? Would we be raptured before the suffering got too bad? Would we get to come back as part of Jesus’ vanguard force to reclaim the earth from Satan? If the teachers of things prophetic were correct, the signs were surely present.  As for the Temple, well we assumed that the Jewish people, having returned to create a new nation-state called Israel would get around to rebuilding the Temple so that the rest of the prophetic word could be fulfilled. This apocalyptic fervor seems to ebb and flow, but it will also be re-stoked by the publication of best-selling books that seek to interpret the biblical message for today. One of the passages that apocalyptic types like to turn to is Mark 13, which is often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse” because of its similarity in message to the book of Revelation.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Work of Theology (Stanley Hauerwas): A Review

THE WORK OF THEOLOGY. By Stanley Hauerwas. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015. Xi + 293 pages.

                It is often said that if we think about God, then we are theologians. That is true in part, but there are some who devote their lives to diving deep into questions about God and God’s interactions with creation. Many of these persons live within the academic world, though some of us have found a home within congregational ministry. The church benefits from the ministry of those who choose to think deeply about these matters, and in recent years a much more diverse cadre of theological writers has emerged. Whereas a generation or so in the past the leading theologians were white Euro-American males, that is changing. Nonetheless there are still many theologians who are white and male, even as we continue to learn from Dead White Male theologians like Karl Barth and John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. Among the living white male theologians who continues to leave a mark on our conversations is Stanley Hauerwas, now emeritus professor of divinity and law at Duke University. Hauerwas has been recognized as one of America’s most influential theologians and thinkers by among others Time Magazine. While I do not number myself among the followers of Stanley Hauerwas, I have found him provocative and thus a contributor to my own theological development.

The Work of Theology is by the author's own admission a collection of essays. It serves as an opportunity for Hauerwas to explore his own theology and the way in which that theology has emerged over time. Although there is a pattern to the book, the elements that make up the book are occasional pieces. Therefore, one could pick and choose different essays and not miss a beat. At the same time, by reading it cover to cover one becomes more familiar with the author’s perspective and even theological methodology. Late in the book he speaks of the unsystematic nature of his own theological work, but he notes that he is in good company since one of the primary influencers of his theology, Karl Barth, was less than systematic. Hauerwas is best known for his work in ethics, and perhaps that is why he is both controversial and provocative. His writings tend to engage the lived world and not the abstract world—not that his work can’t enter the abstract. Hauerwas writes this book in part to dispel what he believes are misunderstandings of his theological and ethical work. Indeed, he confesses in the introduction to be writing the book to help him understand himself. With this in mind, it should not surprise one that Hauerwas is interested in language and how it works. He has an entire essay in the book that speaks to how one should write a theological sentence. He is concerned about language but admits also to being an enemy of theory. Theology is for him an exercise in practical reason.