Thursday, December 31, 2015

Top 20 Religious Books of 2015 - My Selections

For the past several years I have named a Best Book and then the remaining ten or so that I thought were worthy of top billing.  This year I'm doing it a bit differently.  I'm laying out my top twenty books (all religious) that I read and were published during 2015. Most of these books were provided to me by the publisher for review. To them I give thanks.  Several of them especially challenged my thinking on matters theologically. Perhaps none more so than Grace Ji-Sun Kim's Embracing the Other.  Each book, however, is worth reading closely.  For each book you can follow the link to the original review.   I realize there are many other great books out there that I didn't read, but here is my list -- Alphabetically:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Inclusive Marriage Services (Kimberly Bracken Long, et al) -- A Review

INCLUSIVE MARRIAGE SERVICES:  A Wedding Sourcebook. Edited by Kimberly Bracken Long and David Maxwell. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xxvi + 211 pages.

Marriage and family continue to play a central role in our society, but marriage patterns are changing. It's not just the legalization of same-sex marriage, though that is a major change requiring a rethinking of our marriage ceremonies, there are many other factors as well. The wording of most ceremonies assume what we might call a traditional pattern that involves a male and a female, who are probably getting married for the first time, and are moving from their parents' home to a new life together. That pattern has long been abandoned—especially moving from the parents’ home. Today, couples are waiting longer, likely living together before marriage, might be remarrying after divorce, and could already have children. And that's just heterosexual couples! When coupled with the possibility of same-sex weddings, the time is ripe for new sets of resources to be published. This new resource is designed to be used in a variety of settings, without regard to whether the partners are of the same gender or not. That is, they are fully inclusive!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Following the Star - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany Sunday

The Adoration of the Magi - Fernando Gallego
Toledo Museum of Art
Matthew 2:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was.10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.


                Preachers have a choice this Sunday. They can choose to observe the second Sunday of Christmas (the text is from John 1) or they can observe the Day of Epiphany (officially January 6). While the reading from John 1 is theologically compelling, the same can be said for observing Epiphany, together with its story of the visit of the magi (popularly the “three kings”).

Monday, December 28, 2015

How Odd of God (William Willimon) -- A Review

HOW ODD OF GOD: Chosen for the Curious Vocation of Preaching. By William H. Willimon. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xi + 193 pages.

How odd of God to choose human beings, like me, to share the word of God with the world. Or perhaps putting it a bit differently, what makes me think that my words from the pulpit can be a vehicle for God to speak to a congregation? The fact is, the effect of my words on a congregation isn’t in my hands. That doesn’t mean I don’t prepare or work hard at my craft. It simply means that once the words leave my mouth they are no longer mine.

William Willimon ponders this question in conversation Karl Barth, and Barth’s doctrine of election. The book How Odd of God is the published form of Willimon’s 2014 Macleod lectures on Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary.  Willimon writes in the opening paragraph of the book’s introduction that "election is Gods act whereby our lives are wrenched out of our control and we are commandeered to witness, thereby enabling the joy of talking about something more important than ourselves, our families, or our churches" (p. ix). There is a clear theme throughout the book. Preaching has to do with God and not us. We preach because God chooses to speak through us. That is, it starts with theology not anthropology.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

After Three Days -- A Sermon for Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52

This seems to be a season of anniversaries, and believe it or not, it’s been twenty-five years since Macaulay Culkin spent Christmas Home Alone. If you saw that movie, an eight-year-old boy somehow got left behind when the family headed out for Christmas. Fortunately, due to the ingenuity of this child a home invasion is foiled. The movie raises the question: how do you leave your child behind? 

This morning we’ve heard another left behind story. The child in question is, of course, Jesus. According to Luke Jesus and his family have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When the family returns home to Nazareth, Jesus stays behind. It’s not until a day later that the family realizes that Jesus isn’t in the caravan. So, they head back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days of searching the city, Mary and Joseph finally find their lost child sitting in the Temple talking theology with the theology faculty.   

It probably would be a good idea to stop for a moment and catch our breath. Isn’t this the first Sunday after Christmas? Shouldn’t we be back in Bethlehem with baby Jesus? What happened to sweet and cuddly baby Jesus?  Before we knew what was happening he’s become a Tweener. He’s no longer a child, but he’s not quite an adult. He’s in between.

It seems that Jesus is intent on discovering his identity. That happens around age twelve. We start thinking about what it will be like when we grow up. So, maybe it wasn’t an accident that Jesus got left behind.

But, his parents aren’t quite ready to let go of the reins. They’ve been worried sick about their oldest child. After all, they come from a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Growing up as I did in small towns, I remember how our parents didn’t worry too much about us, because our parents were in cahoots with all the other parents. If Mom wanted to know where I was – at least until I could drive – she could just call around the neighborhood.  That seems to be the pattern of this traveling group. As long as Jesus was with the group, Mary and Joseph had nothing to worry about.  Unfortunately, Jerusalem is the big city. No one knows your name. That’s worrisome. You can imagine how anxious Mary and Joseph must have been about the safety of their son. But this isn’t a story about getting left behind. It’s a story about discovering identity.

The story itself is the only canonical story about Jesus’ life between birth and his baptism. It is the only snapshot we have of his growing up years. Today we fill Facebook with pictures of our children. We might even share old Christmas pictures of ourselves when we were children. So, just imagine having pictures of only one event? 

A while back I was thinking about my Confirmation experience at age twelve. I was the same age as Jesus, and in the Episcopal Church back then this was the time to become a full communicant in the church. On Confirmation Sunday the Bishop would lay hands on us, and confirm us in the faith.  Now we could take communion just like all the adults.  As I was thinking about Confirmation, I realized I didn’t have any pictures. So I asked my friend Kim if she had any pictures. But she didn’t pictures either. How could that happen?

When we read this passage it’s easy to get scandalized by the scene, but that’s not the point of the story. Luke isn’t critiquing the parenting style of Mary and Joseph. What he wants us to remember is that the child whose destiny is revealed in the birth story, is in the process of discovering what that means. You might call this a moment of enlightenment or awakening.  Once again we get to watch this through Mary’s eyes. 

In Luke it is Mary who is the primary witness to these earliest moments. She’s the one who receives the news that she will bear a child who will grow up to be David’s heir. When she goes to the house of Elizabeth, she receives another word of encouragement. Mary is blessed because of the child she is bearing. We heard another word of celebration from the shepherds in Bethlehem, and then later from Simeon and Anna on the day Jesus was taken to the Temple to be circumcised. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is the chosen one of God, and Mary is taking all of this in. Luke wants us to know that Jesus has begun to realize his life purpose as well.  

When his parents find him, they let him know that he’s caused them a lot of heartache. They’re not at all happy with him. Their reaction is understandable. When I got lost at the big mall in Portland during a Christmas trip when I was about that age, my parents were not at all happy with me. But Jesus wasn’t concerned at all about all of this. He was where he belonged – in the Temple.  When his mother scolds him for causing the family great anxiety, Jesus simply says – why did it take you so long to find me? That’s my paraphrase? In essence Jesus wonders why they didn’t start with the Temple. Didn’t they know that this was where he would be?  After all, this is his Father’s house. Yes, Joseph might be his human father, but God is his true Father. Jesus identifies himself fully with the work of God. In the King James Version translation of verse 49, Jesus says that he’s engaged in his “Father’s business.”  Jesus returns home with his parents. He remains faithful and obedient. But he’s also discovered his true calling, his true identity. And once again, Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.”

So what happened in Jerusalem? While his parent’s might not have fully understood what was happening, his teachers saw something in him. And he began to see something different in himself. It’s good to remember that Jesus grew up in a rather devout family. We see this revealed in the family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. Yes, these are good parents who want their child to grow up into a faithful Jewish man.

What can we take from this story? We must first of all acknowledge the witness Luke gives to Jesus’ identity. Luke wants us to remember that Jesus is the one through whom God will bring peace and salvation. We see Jesus express this vocation at age twelve. He still has more to learn, but already he has a good sense of who God is and what God desires of him. 

But what of us? Could we not consider the importance of faith in our own family dynamics. There is no guarantee that a child will grow up to be a follower of Jesus. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t introduce our children to our faith. Mary and Joseph might not have fully understood the true nature and calling of their son, but they gave him the opportunity to discover his calling. Yes, they made it possible for him to do his Father’s business. As a result, we find him sitting in the Temple amazing the teachers with his wisdom and knowledge. 

Yes, they do grow up fast!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 27, 2015
Christmas 1C

Friday, December 25, 2015

Treasured Words - A Sermon for Christmas/Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

For the past fifty years many of us have chosen to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special. As you may remember, Charlie Brown is struggling to understand the true meaning of Christmas. The commercial side of the season doesn’t hold any meaning for him. Finally, and after his failure to find the “proper” Christmas tree ends his attempt at directing the Christmas pageant, he cries out in near panic: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”At that point Linus the Theologian takes center stage and recounts the Christmas story as told by Luke. After coming off the stage, Linus says to him:  “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

We’ve come here tonight because we want to take hold of this message shared with us by Linus the Theologian. Like Charlie Brown, we want to know what Christmas is really about.

Luke offers us the most recognizable version of the Christmas story. He tells us about a very pregnant Mary who accompanies her husband Joseph on a journey to Bethlehem. When they arrive, they find that there is no room for them in the inn. So, they take up residence in a stable, and it’s there that Mary gives birth to her first born child. As our creche scene reminds us, Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, surrounded by servants. Instead, this little child, whom Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace, is surrounded by shepherds bearing witness to the message shared with them by the Angels. 

These shepherds are the first evangelists. God sends them to the Holy Family, reminding Mary and Joseph that this is no ordinary child. This is the one who brings peace and good will. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of what takes place in the manger, reminding us that “it is God himself, the Lord and Creator of all things, who is so small here, who is hidden here in the corner, who enters into the plainness of the world, who meets us in the helplessness and defenselessness of a child, and wants to be with us” [God is in the Manger, p. 66].  After the shepherds give their witness, Luke says that everyone who heard the news was amazed, and “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

For a moment let us put ourselves in Mary’s place, and view this event through her eyes. What does it mean to us this very evening to treasure this story in our hearts? How will this story change our lives?

When I watch people of all ages approach a mother and her newborn child, offering words of encouragement and blessing, I imagine that these mothers, and fathers as well, are a bit like Mary. They treasure the moment. They find blessing in the words of their friends. Mary must have felt a bit overwhelmed by all the commotion, and yet it is this witness that opens our eyes and heart to God’s blessings revealed through her to the world. 

What Mary brings to the story for us, I think, is the sense of wonder at the reality of the incarnation. God is in Christ drawing us into the new creation. This is the one through whom God promises to bring peace and good will. As Isaiah declares: “For unto us a child is born  . . .  [the] Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there will be endless peace . . .” (Is. 9:6-7). It is on this promise that Mary invites this evening to ponder and meditate.

In a few moments we will gather at the table and receive signs of Jesus’ presence. In these signs we’re reminded that God is with us. It is in this presence that we find peace, even if we are experiencing chaos in our lives. Indeed, it is good to remember that a stable and a group of shepherds don’t present a very tidy and peaceful space, and yet I believe Mary found peace in this moment. May we, slow down for a moment and take in the blessings that come to us in the message of a child born in Bethlehem. And as we move from the Table to the edges of the sanctuary bearing lights, may we join Mary in treasuring these things and then continue the work of the shepherds, telling  the world that the Prince of Peace is in our midst.

For that is what Christmas is all about!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Unto Us a Child Is Born

For a child has been born for us,
    a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
    and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
    and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
    He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 
(Isaiah 9:6-7)

Christmas Eve has arrived. Advent has brought us this far. We have walked in expectation and hope. Now, as the day progresses, we have opportunity to reflect on the promise of Isaiah. "A child has been for us."  This is the promise of God that we might see the revealing of God's presence in our midst. In the person of a child, of an infant, we will encounter the Prince of Peace. We have opportunity this day to enter into the promised realm of God, where justice and righteousness will be established.

As you meditate upon Isaiah's message for the day I invite you to also reflect on these words preached at Christmas 1940 by Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

What kings and leaders of nations, philosophers and artists, founders of religions and teachers of morals have tried in vain to do -- that now happens through a newborn child. Putting to shame the most powerful human efforts and accomplishments, a child is placed here at the midpoint of world history -- a child born of human beings, a son given by God (Isa. 9:6). That is the mystery of redemption of the world; everything past and everything future is encompassed here. The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us,  this son is given to us,  that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine -- on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands . . . ." [D.B., God is in the Manger, WJK Press, p. 46].  

Yes, a child has our life in his hands! May you have a blessed Christmas! 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Tolerance and Truth(s) -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Last week a fracas erupted on the campus of evangelical bastion -- Wheaton College -- after a tenured professor was suspended for declaring that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. She made the statement as part of her effort to declare solidarity with Muslim Americans (by wearing a hijab) in the aftermath of San Bernardino. The professor teaches at a Christian college, but isn't a professional theologian. Nonetheless, she drew upon the words of Pope Francis and theologian Miroslav Volf. Martin Marty takes up the issue in this Christmas week edition of Sightings. Putting aside the occasion for the debate, it would be worth our while to have a conversation about truth and religious particularity. I would agree with her that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, following the logic of Miroslav Volf's presentations.  But, what about the particularities?  I invite a reading of the article and your thoughts in response.

Tolerance and Truth(s)
By MARTIN E. MARTY   DEC 21, 2015
Larycia Hawkins, assistant professor of political science at Wheaton College, at a press conference (Dec. 16, 2015)                                                 Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP Photo
Last Thursday a front-page Chicago Tribune (Dec. 17) story by Manya Brachear Pashman and Marwa Eltagouri awakened us locals to upheavals at suburban Wheaton College, which some—I among them—call the evangelical flagship in higher education. The first impulse was to be humble and dismiss the flap as an over-stressed local story, sub-headed as it was, “Prof suspended for views, not scarf…” This line seemed to report yet one more administrative fracas at one among hundreds of colleges. Yawn?

A few days after the professor’s suspension, however, we find responses on the internet, e.g. AOL, to be running in the hundreds of thousands. Google the name of Professor “Larycia Hawkins” to see for yourself how widespread and diverse responses are to her decision to wear a hijab in an effort to spread understanding and good will.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A Lost Child? -- A Lectionary Reflection for Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

41 Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” 49 He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart. 
52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor.


                I was about twelve when my family visited Portland (Oregon) around Christmas. During our visit to Lloyd’s Center—the big shopping center at the time—I got separated from my family (I think I had gone to the toy department at J.C. Penney’s).  Although it wasn’t three days, my parents were none too happy at my disappearance.  Jesus was about the same age (twelve), when he got separated from his parents. At least that’s the story that Luke tells.

According to Luke Jesus and his family traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, as was their custom. While they were in Jerusalem, Jesus seems to have wandered off. About a day into the family’s return home, Jesus’ parents realize that he’s not with the caravan traveling back to Nazareth. You can imagine how panicked they must have been, but then it seems mind-boggling to 21st century Westerners to think that it took a day for them to realize he wasn’t with them. Today, it seems that many parents rarely let their children out of their sight (unless they know they’re under the supervision of another adult). Figuring that he must be back in Jerusalem Mary and Joseph left the caravan, return to Jerusalem to start their search for the lost child.      

Monday, December 21, 2015

Embracing the Other (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) -- Review

EMBRACING THE OTHER: The Transformative Spirit of Love (Prophetic Christianity). By Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. X + 182 pages.

                After the #BlackLivesMatter movement was born, a counter movement emerged declaring that #AllLivesMatter. Whether by design or not, the partisans of #AllLivesMatter missed the point of the earlier movement (and others like it). While we would like to believe that all lives truly matter, time has shown us that too often the majority culture fails to recognize the value of lives that differ from their own. This is why the majority culture likes to speak of a melting pot, rather than a salad bowl or similar metaphor to express American diversity. The idea of the melting pot is one of assimilation, and to assimilation is to act as much as possible as if one is white, which the majority culture assumes is normative (superior).  What is true generally, is often true of the Christian community. There is the tendency to assume that the way the majority culture understands Christianity is normative as well. Thus, Christianity is understood to be a white Euro-American religion. After all, isn’t Jesus a white European male?

As a white male Christian theologian/pastor, I continue to be sensitized to the fact that over the course of centuries my gender and my ethnicity have defined what it means to be Christian. As the Christian world becomes increasingly diverse (or rather we recognize that diversity), it can be difficult to accept changing realities, which is why we would like to proclaim that all lives matter without acknowledging that a goodly number of Christians have been marginalized by those whose ethnicity and gender have given them power.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Out of Nowhere -- A Sermon for Advent 4C

Micah 5:2-5a

O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

These words written long ago by Phillips Brooks have long been a favorite of carolers. In our mind’s eye we imagine a small quiet town, where not much is happening. It’s not a place where you would expect something momentous to occur. And yet, the carol declares that the everlasting Light shines in its streets.

As Advent moves quickly toward its culmination in Christmas, we begin to see signs that the Everlasting Light is about to shine. We’ve been preparing these past several weeks for this day, and wait in hopeful expectation for the full revealing of this Light of God.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People -- Sightings (Sarah Fredericks)

Although not everyone is on board, there are clear signs that the earth is experiencing significant climate change. It also seems clear to most scientists that we humans are major contributors to this change. Last week a major climate summit ended with a historic agreement that commits the nations of the world to addressing this important problem. Climate change is a difficult concept to understand, because it's difficult to pinpoint its effects. Is the fact that it is unusually warm this December a sign?  Or, better, are changing migratory patterns of birds a sign? Sarah Fredericks reflects on the issue by showing how religious people have been at the forefront of advocating on this issue. I invite you to read and perhaps offer your thoughts on the question of what we can do as people of faith to make a difference?

Historic Paris Climate Agreement Reflects Years of Advocacy by Religious People
Credit: lexaarts /
Last Saturday, world leaders from 196 nations who had gathered in Paris adopted a historic agreement about climate change

Millions of religious people and their secular partners around the world have worked for years to make this agreement possible.

While religious people care about climate change for a host of reasons, many consider it to be the most significant social justice issue that human civilization has faced.

Friday, December 18, 2015

It's All Mine - Or Is It?

I am trying to stay out of the Donald Trump fray, at least for now, but I have been pondering why he has caught on with so many Americans. To be honest, I've been wondering about the sanity of my fellow citizens. Or perhaps we should wonder what's in the water.  Yesterday, as I was watching the news, I caught a bit of a Trump rally. I can't remember the statement exactly, but Trump essentially defined the movement he leads as one committed to keeping the other from getting my stuff.  That's my loose paraphrase of what I heard. 

Trump is a showman, but I don't think he would be leading the polls for so long if he wasn't tapping into something in the American psyche. There is a deep fear that if someone else has something then it comes at my expense. Thus, the anti-immigrant talk.  While I think there is racism in this, there is also this Nativist protectionist element. It's why many vote against their own interests. They forget that if another has insurance, then the same opportunity is open to them. Or consider the protests against the Affordable Care Act, where seniors with Medicare were demanding that the government keep their hands off their insurance, forgetting that Medicare is a government health insurance program. Of course, opponents of the health insurance reform were able to turn seniors against non-seniors.

Political power is often gained and sustained through a divide and conquer method. Colonial powers knew this to be true. The British used this method to control the vast Indian subcontinent. Too often we give into this.  So, we see Donald Trump rising to the top by stoking the fears of white Americans who see their vision of America being undermined by the growing diversity within our midst. In places like California no racial/ethnic group can claim a firm majority of the population. Thus, the European-American (WASP) cultural hegemony that was in place for more than three centuries is no more. But it's not only ethnicity, it's also religion. Even though Christianity remains by far the dominant religion in America, the idea of anti-Christian persecution is rampant, which is expressing itself (in my opinion) in the anti-Muslim backlash we're seeing.  

The nation is changing. It is browner, it is religiously more diverse, it is more accepting of differing family configurations. Not everyone is comfortable with this.  That is to be expected. There are aspects of the changing times that make me uncomfortable. But, my prayer is that we would embrace each other, in all our diversity, rather than take the tribalist route.  This is why I wish we would reinstate as our national motto these Latin words: E Pluribus Unum (Out of the many one). Oh, and as we learned in kindergarten -- it's good to share!!    

Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Stable Lamp is Lighted (David Hurd)

This Advent season, the Advent hymn that has stood out has been David Hurd's A Stable Lamp is Lighted. I have it in my Spotify Advent list, and wanted to share it. This is a different choir, but I think that it brings across the beauty of the piece. This version, which I found on You Tube, is offered by the choirs of Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. I share it with you as the season of Advent closes and we make the final turn toward Christmas. May you be blessed by it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Change in Church and State Relations - Sightings (Martin Marty)

This week Martin Marty continues a conversation begun last week concerning religious liberty and the relationships of church and state. It is fifty years since the Catholic Church issued a declaration that essentially ended what Marty calls "Catholicdom," or the last vestiges of Catholic attempts to continue its hegemony in countries where it held a majority. Marty raises important points about the current church/state -- religious liberty debate. Whereas Catholics were once the problem, now its Muslims. He notes the growing tribalism in our midst, and suggests that maybe that Vatican II Decree and a much earlier challenge to Christendom -- the 1st Amendment of 1789, might have some value for us today. Take a read and offer your thoughts.


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Change in Church and State Relations
By MARTIN E. MARTY   DEC 14, 2015
Interior of St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City State                           Credit: Gillmar /
Last Monday’s Sightings observed and celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of official Roman Catholicism’s documentable change, at the Second Vatican Council, in concepts and practices of religious freedom. Robert Cushman of Duke University, a Protestant delegate-observer at the Council, was not alone or wrong when he concluded that the day of this vote changed “a very ancient order of things. …the era of Constantine—sixteen hundred years of it—passed away.”

Over-simple? Over-dramatic? Perhaps, but insightful.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Blessed Are You Among Women! - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 4C

Luke 1:39-56 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Hans Holbein -- Toledo Museum of Art
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 
46 And Mary said, 
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 
56 And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
                Who is Mary and what is her role in the story of our salvation?  Why has God chosen her to be the mother of the Lord? Some of that information is given in the preceding verses, where the angel visits Mary and announces that she will bear a child, even though she has not been with a man. No worries, says the Angel, the Holy Spirit will take care of that. And indeed, Mary is now with child. Luke offers us one of two takes on the question of Jesus’ origins. For the most part the New Testament writers show no interest in Jesus’ conception or birth. For the most part Mary doesn’t figure prominently in the story. Yet, Mary has figured prominently in the traditions of the church. The Nicene Creed declares of Jesus that “for our salvation he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human.” The confession that Mary was at the time of conception a virgin, and perhaps ever afterward, has long been a point of contention within and without the Christian community. It has become a matter of contention in the modern age as questions are raised about the miraculous. While some continue to hold fast to the ancient confession, perhaps because they embrace the miraculous or because they believe that this is an essential tenet of the faith, others reject the concept, relegating it to the realm of myth, and thus something that needs to be set aside by reasonable moderns. There are still others who simply continue affirming the confession, not because it is in line with modern beliefs, but because it reflects the important role of Mary in the economy of God.  As John P. Meier put it: “one’s acceptance or rejection of the doctrine will be largely influenced by one’s own philosophical and theological presuppositions, as well as the weight one gives Church teachings” [A Marginal Jew, 1:222]. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Unexpected Christian Century (Scott Sunquist) -- A Review

THE UNEXPECTED CHRISTIAN CENTURY:  The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000. By Scott W. Sunquist. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.  Xxiv + 213 pages.

            As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century, Christian leaders dubbed the incoming century as the "Christian Century." A journal bearing that name became one of the leading North American Christian voices (and continues to be an important journal to this day). At the time, even as Western colonial expansion was reaching its height, Christian missionary efforts from the United States and Europe were expanding the footprint of Christianity across the globe. So hopeful about the future of the Christian movements were mission leaders such as John R. Mott, that they foretold the churches that the world would be converted in their generation. While that confidence might have been misplaced, the Christian footprint has continued to expand. What was unexpected at the time was that the center of the Christian faith would move from its earlier strongholds in Europe and North America to the Global South and to Asia. What transpired during the twentieth century ended up as quite a surprise, thus it stands as one of what Scott Sunquist suggests is one of three great transformations over the past two thousand years (the other two being the fourth century Constantinian embrace and the sixteenth century Reformation).   

What makes the twentieth century transformation so important is that the century saw the greatest global expansion in the history of the church (with all that this entails, both good and bad).  So, what is needed is an accessible treatment of this amazing reversal of fortunes and transformation of global Christianity. One attempt at telling the story of Christianity in the twentieth century comes from the pen of missiologist and historian Scott Sunquist, the current dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and professor of World Christianity at my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary.  This book is not a comprehensive study, but it is global in scope. It is rooted in good scholarship, but remains quite accessible to the non-specialist.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

God Is in Our Midst -- A Sermon for Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Peter Bruegel, The Wedding Dance -- DIA

Each Sunday of Advent we process into the sanctuary, led by a child carrying a lantern.  This year we’re singing “Emmanuel,” a song that reflects on a name that means “God with Us.” Advent is a lot like the season of Lent, because it forces us to slow down and look for God’s presence in our midst. This is an especially difficult task at this time of year, because there are lots of distractions. For instance, the Christmas buying season begins earlier each year, and the radio stations go all Christmas on Thanksgiving Day if not before. Then there’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, office parties and holiday concerts. Yes, there is much to do, and so little time to do it. So why bother with Advent? Why not go directly to Christmas? 

Since this is my first opportunity to preach during the Advent season, I decided to bring us up to date. Because I’m preaching from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, I thought we might look back at the lectionary readings from the prophets chosen for the first two Sundays of Advent.  

Friday, December 11, 2015

Freedom in Covenant -- An excerpt

The religious movement that gave birth to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) burst forth on the American frontier early in the nineteenth century. This fact is important if we are to understand the story of who the Disciples are and what they value. What has come to be known as the Stone-Campbell Movement was marked from the beginning by a frontier ethos of freedom, anti-institutionalism, and individualism. You might say that this is a denominational tradition with a libertarian streak. In addition to its frontier ethos, the movement has been marked by its roots in the Reformed tradition, for the founders of the movement were first Presbyterians before taking the steps that led to the creation of a new American religious movement. While Disciples are heirs of the Reformed tradition, they, along with the other two major branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, are marked by their points of resistance. This is especially true regarding demands for doctrinal conformity. As a result, Disciples take pride in being a non-creedal tradition.

The Stone-Campbell Movement, of which the Disciples are but one branch, saw itself as an attempt at re-envisioning Christianity for a new century (the nineteenth century). Freed from the bonds of inherited tradition, it would chart a new course that would unite Christians everywhere in an evangelistic mission that would touch the world. The foundation for this effort was to be found in the pages of the New Testament. Freedom, unity, evangelism, and restorationism would be hallmarks of this new movement.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

“Religious Freedom” After 50 Years? -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Religious liberty is a much debated issue in recent years. One need only think of the debates around contraception and the affordable care act. Of course, at this time of year we debate whether it is appropriate to sing Christmas carols in school. Then there is the question of whether the First Amendment applies to the majority religion or all religions. That Donald Trump (see my posting from yesterday) would offer a plan to ban Muslims from entering the country, suggest that Muslims could be surveiled, and mosques closed raises issues of religious liberty for whom. In this week's Sightings column Martin Marty lifts up one of the most significant decisions to come out of Vatican II. On December 7, 1965, fifty years ago this past Monday, the Council voted by a landslide to set aside settled Catholic doctrine that held that in countries with a Catholic majority, Catholics should be privileged over other faith traditions. That this was rejected by the church set forth a new day in religious liberty -- but what does this mean?  Take a read and offer your thoughts. 

Having trouble reading this email? 
Religious Freedom After 50 Years?
By MARTIN E. MARTY   DEC 7, 2015
Grand Procession of the Second Vatican Council into St. Peter's Basilica, Rome, October 11, 1962 Photograph: Peter Geymayer / wikimedia
December 7th: Sightings notes the date because fifty years ago today, by a vote of 2,308 to 70, the “Council Fathers” at the Second Vatican Council voted to promulgateDignitatis Humanae, “On the Dignity of the Human Person.”

Regarded as one of the main achievements of the Council and as signaling a drastic change in Roman Catholicism’s official view of the religious rights of all, the lop-sided vote does not reflect the high drama of the bruising doings in and around the Council meetings in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Loving My Muslim Neighbor

Standing at the center of the Christian faith, as well as Judaism from which we emerged, are two commands.  First love God and second love one's neighbor as one's self. To flesh this out, we read in 1 John that "those who say, 'I love God,' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (1 John 4:20). Now, I could limit my love for my neighbor to those who are part of my faith community, but in the parable of the Good Samaritan Jesus makes it clear that such a narrowing of vision is not true to the vision of God (Luke 10:25-37). 

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

God Has No Grandchildren - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3C

Luke 3:7-18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 
10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

                I’m not sure when I first heard the phrase “God has no grandchildren,” but it has a certain resonance here in this passage and in our modern American context. In another apocalyptic moment, we hear John the Baptist challenging his listeners to take stock of their connection with God. Don’t trust your ancestry to get you where you want to go. It is an ongoing challenge to culturally defined religion. His target audience, in Luke’s presentation, are fellow Jews whom he deems to be culturally religious. He tells them that relying on their ancestry is irrelevant. It’s not who your ancestors are, but what you do with that inheritance.

As we emerge out of the age of Christendom, when much of Western society was culturally Christian, it is clear that simply living in American culture doesn’t make one Christian (or religious). It doesn’t matter whether you grew up in church or whether your parents were good Christians. Ancestry or national origin doesn’t make you a Christian.

There has long been a debate between those who insist on conversion and those who believe that faith can be nurtured. Thus, for instance, as revivalism burned over much of the eastern half of the country in the early nineteenth century, Horace Bushnell wrote a famous book called On Christian Nurture. Bushnell argued that a child should grow up never knowing anything other than being Christian. Thus, a child is baptized as an infant, raised in the church, confirmed in the faith, and Christian life continues on. This led to the practice of age-related confirmation classes. I was, for instance, confirmed in the Episcopal Church at the age of twelve. This ceremony was the culmination of our sixth grade Sunday School class. There were no tests or examinations, just some instruction and then the bishop laid hands on us making us full-fledged members of the church. Later on I had a conversion experience and was re-baptized in a creek. It should be noted that even in more baptistic communities, including the Disciples, something similar happens. Instead of a bishop confirming, the young people were baptized after going through a pastor’s class, usually around the age of twelve. For many families that was the end of formal church-going. The kids were safely Christian and now the family could go to brunch instead of church.

John the Baptist is like a revivalist. He challenges the cultural religiosity of his day. He tells the people who are listening not to trust in their ancestry. Just because Abraham and Sarah were their ancestors didn’t mean they could rest on their laurels. After all, God could create children for Abraham and Sarah from the stones. What is needed is a good old fashioned revival. Repent. Change your life-style. Be Baptized as a sign of that repentance and God will forgive your sins. John notes that while he baptized with water, one was coming who would baptize with Holy Spirit and with fire. He was the messenger spoken of in Malachi 3:1-4 who would prepare the way for the one who was to come, the one who would refine the people, even as silver is refined with fire.

                There is a strong apocalyptic tone here, one that carries with it a message of divine judgment. This message of judgment that fills so many of the Advent texts may help explain why we like to move quickly through the season. Going through a time of purification is not exciting. I surely don’t relish it. What is interesting is the way the passage ends: “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” According to Luke the message of John is good news. It’s gospel. The question is how is it good news to us?

                As an aside, I should probably note that there is a downside to the end of Christendom. Our churches, as institutions, are struggling to survive. Denominations are in decline. Seminaries are grasping at straws trying to retool for a new reality. Clergy wonder if there will be enough churches that can support them in full-time roles. Once upon a time, people went to church because it was an expected duty. They gave because it was expected. That’s no longer true. Cultural Christianity is in its death throes. But, John comes offering us a message of conversion. Repent, be baptized—first with water, and then with the Holy Spirit and Fire.

                As important a prophet as John might be, he was not the one who bring the realm of God into existence. He was the one who prepared the way. Jesus will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note:
For Luke, the Spirit brings the realm of God to expression after Jesus’ ascension. This passage prompts listeners to recognize that Christian baptism welcomes people into an eschatological community in which (through the Spirit) they live in the power of the divine realm. Repentance is the first step toward becoming a part of this group. [Preaching the Gospels withoutBlaming the Jews, p. 173]

Of course, if we assume that God has no grandchildren, and that each of us has responsibility for our place in the realm of God, we must beware of the tendency in America to emphasize individualism. It is a fine line, but perhaps if we consider the Table as the entry point where all are welcome, then baptism ceases to be the prerequisite to the Table and becomes instead the point at which one owns one’s place in the covenant community and the divine realm. As we do this then we begin to bear the fruit of our repentance. In this there is good news!