Sunday, January 31, 2016

No hometown Hero - Sermon for Epiphany 4C

Luke 4:21-30 

Don’t you love cliff hangers? If you’re old enough, you might remember that for an entire summer the nation’s attention was arrested by the question of “Who shot J.R.?” The lectionary left us in a somewhat similar position last week. When last we gathered, Jesus was making a few comments about the reading from Isaiah 61, which spoke of the Year of Jubilee. When he sat down, he told the congregation: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s where we pick up the story this morning. Jesus is telling the people that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah 61. He is the one anointed with the Spirit who will institute the Year of Jubilee, and with it freedom from poverty, imprisonment, and captivity. 

The people are still amazed at his words, after all this is Joseph’s son. We know this man. We watched him grow up. So how did he become such a great preacher? Well that’s as good as it gets, because Jesus quickly moves from hometown hero to persona non grata! 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Mystic Chapel (The Project) -- Album Review

Music is always in the ear of the beholder. It can be generational as well. What appeals to me as someone in his 50s might be different than someone who is in their 80s or 20s. When it comes to religiously oriented music, that adds in another layer of interpretation. There are often theological concerns to be taken into consideration. Thus, offering a review of an album is very different from that of a book.

Having been approached by Michael Glen Bell, one of the two artists comprising The Project, I agreed to take up the task. I found the album on Spotify and began listening to it. I took a look at the lyrics. What if found was an album that has a bit of the electronic and a bit of the acoustic to it. I hear a bit of Jars of Clay in the album, though I can also hear a bit of Phil Keaggy and John Michael Talbot, all Christian singers and groups that I have enjoyed over the years. The theology expressed in the lyrics is evangelical, but not overly conservative. The title of the album is indicative, for the most part, of the intent of the artists. They want to encourage a sense of mystery and an attitude of worship. With music it is best to listen for yourself.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Rabbi, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit: For Orthodox Jewish Women, What's In a Title? -- Sightings (Pamela Nadell)

I found this Sightings essay by Pamela Nardell intriguing. We think of Orthodox Judaism as the Jewish equivalent to conservative evangelicalism, maybe even Fundamentalism. The essay notes a crack in the clerical glass ceiling within the Orthodox Jewish movement, with women being ordained and even called to serve as Rabbis. This just goes to show you that old ways are not always set in stone. The Spirit does move!! I share for your reflection and celebration!

Rabbi, Rabba, Maharat, Rabbanit: For Orthodox Jewish Women, What's In a Title?
By PAMELA S. NADELL   JAN. 28, 2016
U.S. Air Force Rabbi (Reform), Chaplain, Captain Sarah D. Schechter, and trainees celebrate Shabbat (Sept. 4, 2009) at Lackland Air Force Base. Chaplain, Captain Schechter was the first woman rabbi in the U.S. Air Force.                               Credit: Lance Cheung / U.S. Air Force Photo
Almost two decades ago, I ended my book Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985 with a question: “Will there be Orthodox women rabbis?”  At the start of 2016, media headlines blared: “Breaking News: New Jersey Synagogue Reveals It Hired First ‘Orthodox’ Woman ‘Rabbi’.”

Lila Kagedan, the New Jersey Synagogue’s new hire, was ordained last summer at New York City’s Yeshivat Maharat, a seminary that describes itself as offering women “an official path for gaining the skills, training, and certification they need to become spiritual leaders within the Modern Orthodox community.” While there, Kagedan broke another barrier: She became its first graduate to take the title rabbi.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Can't we have a bit of Civility?

I've been trying to refrain from engaging in too much political talk on the blog. I have decided on a candidate for President. I hope she wins, not because she's a perfect candidate but because of those running I feel like she's the most equipped to handle a difficult job.  

My concern as I watch the current situation is the lack of civility that is present in our current context. I understand why people get angry and get upset. But anger by itself is destructive. We can't let anger drive our lives, especially when that anger keeps us from pursuing the greater good. Yelling obscenities. Calling opponents names. It's just not productive. 

We need cool heads who can find solutions to deep and abiding challenges. We have an immigration problem. It needs to be fixed so that people can come out of the shadows and live productive lives. Young people who came here as children, who have lived their entire lives in this country, need to have the freedom to live out the American dream. Refugees from countries that are torn by violence need to be able to find safe havens in our communities. We are largely a country composed of immigrants and refugees. Unfortunately, too often once here we want to shut the door on others.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Ups and Downs of Religion

Religion is a complicated subject. We hear that religion is on the decline in certain parts of the west, while it's very present in the Global South and elsewhere in what we once called the "Third World." Times have changed and so have our categories. In this week's essay, Martin Marty takes a look at two phenomena -- the "most-Bible-minded cities" in America. Where do you think they lie? And what does that mean? The other item of interest is an essay on the death of the Midwestern Church. The latter is related, it would seem, to the move from rural to urban in the Midwest. Marty has some pithy statements on both that are worth contemplating!

The Ups and Downs of Religion
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JAN. 25, 2016
Church near Weeping Water, Nebraska.                                                                Credit: Rich / flickr
Those (of us) who do sightings of religion in public life are schooled to notice not only the “what” of religious phenomena and happenings, but also the “where” of each.

A guiding theme in my observing and reporting derives from a provocative and (only slightly) over-stated claim of José Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me your landscape and I will tell you who you are.” It takes more than our “place” to explain our whole selves, but location tells much.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Home Town Visit Goes Awry - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C

Luke 4:21-30 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

                Filled with the Holy Spirit Jesus had begun his preaching ministry in Galilee. After touring some of the towns, he went back home to Nazareth. On the Sabbath day he paid a visit to the local synagogue, where we would assume he would be known. When he arrived the leaders, having heard of his fame as a preacher, asked him to read the scripture for the day and offer a few words. Everything seemed to be going well, at least at first. Even his proclamation of the Year of Jubilee and his announcement that he was its fulfillment hadn’t caused too many ripples (not as many as I might have expected). The people were amazed at how eloquent he was. Yes, they were amazed that this hometown boy was so accomplished a teacher. Who knew that Joseph’s son would turn out like this?  Then again, if we go back in time to Jesus’ adolescent years, Luke suggests that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). Had anything changed in the intervening years to have changed the view of the people?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Tending to the Tree of Life (Richard Voelz) -- A Review

TENDING THE TREE OFLIFE: Preaching and Worship through Reproductive Loss and Adoption.  By Richard W. Voelz. Shook Foil Books, 2015. 123 pages (e-book format).

                There are some life experiences that people have traditionally kept private. The church for its own part has often remained silent about such experiences or simply avoided dealing with them. Those days are ending and we who serve in the church find ourselves faced with new opportunities for ministry. At the same time many of us find ourselves unprepared for these opportunities. Such is the case with reproductive loss and adoption.  I recently found myself faced with this very reality. I had missed signals, and failed to respond. In the end I was able to provide at least some pastoral support for the family. It was a learning experience. As the conversation began I discovered that a significant number of the women in the church had experienced a miscarriage or some other form of reproductive loss. If only I had read Tending the Tree ofLife earlier in my ministry, I would have been better prepared to care for these and other members of the congregation.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Anointed Mission -- Sermon for Epiphany 3C

Luke 4:14-21

Monday was Martin Luther King Day, and I attended the Troy community celebration of Dr. King’s life. Our speaker reminded us that Dr. King’s message was quite revolutionary. Not only did he want to end segregation, he wanted to tackle two other related issues of his day: poverty and militarism. He recognized that poverty and militarism were related and that they disproportionately affected people of color. In taking up these causes he made enemies. At the time of his assassination he was trying to create a coalition of poor people whom he was going to lead in a March on Washington to make sure that Washington understood the plight of the nation’s poor and marginalized. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Religion, Globalization, & Public Life

I write a lot about religion and public life. I've written book titled Faith in the Public Square. I've been active in a variety of public roles as a Christian. I believe that religion has role to play in public life, but it needs to walk a fine line.  The danger that faces people of faith is getting too closely aligned with the state, lest one becomes a tool of the state!

I am currently reading Miroslav Volf's new book -- Flourishing (Yale, 2016). I will be reviewing the book at a later date, but I would like to share this piece with you.  He notes that there have been in recent years attempts to strengthen ties between world religions and the political order. We see this in the Christian Right, Political Islam, and elsewhere.  The problem is that such attempts to connect the two usually leads to religion becoming subservient to the state and a loss of identity. They simply become tools of the powers that be.

However, if religion is "decoupled from the state, religion need not be privatized; emancipation of the state from religion doesn't spell the end of the political influence of religion." In fact globalization has the possibility of creating a more pluralistic context where religion and government interact in a more healthy way.  So he writes:

The great opportunity for world religions today is to give up the self-betraying, violence-inducing, and futile dream of each in association with the state controlling public life and instead embrace social and political pluralism and the public role available to them. In seizing this opportunity, globalization is their ally (even if in other  regards it may be their rival). It is helping religions free themselves from the false alternatives of either being personal but publicly inconsequential or publicly significant but politically authoritarian. It is strengthening the possibility for religions to be personally appropriated, publicly engaged, and politically pluralistic all at the same time. [Volf, Flourishing, p. 87]. 

Religion can be a destructive force in the world, but it need not be. For it to be constructive we who are part of the religious community need to recognize the pluralism in our context. We can't impose our vision on others. We can only persuade, and persuasion must be honest. No slight of hand here! Let us then embrace our role with humility and respect for others.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fractured Christian World(s) - Sightings (Martin Marty)

This past week a gathering of Anglican religious leaders, heads of the various branches of the world-wide Anglican communion. They voted to suspend the American branch (the Episcopal Church) from participating in the business of the Anglican Communion for a period of three years. The primary point of division is differing understandings of sexuality, especially regard LGBT persons. This event is evidence of fractures within the broader Christian community, some of which is rooted in the tensions between European and North American churches and the churches of the global south. There has been tremendous growth in the Global South and in Asia (a majority of Christians now live outside the traditional homeland). Theologically and socially the churches of the South are more conservative than their northern siblings. This has caused tension. Martin Marty lifts up the issue, noting that the diversity and fracturing isn't new. The question is where does it lead? Take a read, offer your thoughts.

Fractured Christian World(s)
By MARTIN E. MARTY   JAN. 18, 2016
Protests in front of Canterbury Cathedral, England, against decision by Anglican Communion to restrict role of U.S. Episcopal Church due to its acceptance of same-sex marriage (Jan. 15, 2016)
Credit: Frank Augstein / AP Photo
Look at medieval maps of Europe, urges Robert D. Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal(see "Resources" below) and you will be overwhelmed by the dizzying incoherence—all of those empires, kingdoms, confederations, “minor” states, “upper” this and “lower” that. It is a picture of a radically fractured world. Today’s Europe is, in effect, returning to such a map. Kaplan’s article is called “Europe’s New Medieval Map.”

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Here I Am (Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Editor) - A Review

HERE I AM: Faith Stories of Korean American Clergywomen. Edited by Grace Ji-Sun Kim. Foreword by Neal D. Presa. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2015. Xi + 162.

Each of us have stories to tell, and each story has a context. I am, for instance, a white straight married male Protestant clergyman living in the United States. That’s not my entire identity, but these are key markers. My experiences in life will be different from a Korean American clergywoman. One major difference is that society is more likely to accept my identity as a member of the clergy than a Korean woman. Indeed, to be a woman in a Korean context is to flout expectations, even more so than for a white woman. To hear stories of call and ministry is illuminating, if we’re willing to listen closely.

Here I Am is a collection of stories. They are enlightening, though they’re not always happy stories. In many cases these are stories of survival and perseverance in the face of difficult cultural challenges. To be Korean in America presents one set of challenges. To be a woman called to ministry in a Korean context presents another set of challenges. I was invited to read these stories by the editor, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, whose book Embracing the Other I had recently reviewed. She asked her publisher to send me a copy, for which I’m thankful. So, I want to thank Grace for entrusting these stories to my care. Having the opportunity to read them has been an enriching experience.  

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Charismatic Messiah -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 3C

Luke 4:14-21 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Georges Roualt
Cleveland Museum of Art

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”


                “Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit,” which Jesus received on the day of his baptism (Luke 3:21-22), Jesus began his ministry in Galilee. Everybody started talking about his preaching. People invited him to teach in their synagogues. He was in demand, because his message seemed fresh. It seemed empowered.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Black Lives Do Matter - A Reflection for Martin Luther King Day

Today we stop to honor and remember the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I wish I could say that the dream offered more than fifty years in the past had come to pass. It was a dream first enunciated in Detroit and later in Washington. Many have tried to take hold of the dream and recast it in a way that Dr. King did not mean it. In recent months we've heard the cry #BlackLivesMatter. In response some have declared that #AllLivesMatter. While this is true, until we recognize that our society values some lives over other lives the latter slogan is meaningless.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Party Time - Sermon for Epiphany 2C

John 2:1-11

Everybody loves a wedding!  Well, almost everybody! Weddings are usually joyous occasions. Not only do two people get joined together, but so do two families and all that goes with that. 

I’m not an expert on weddings, but I do have a bit of experience with them. First of all, I should mention my own wedding to Cheryl. It’s been awhile, but I do remember it. I’ve also been in a few weddings as a groomsman or an usher. I’ve also been a guest at weddings. Then, there are the weddings at which I’ve officiated, and I could tell a few stories about these weddings. 

I often tell a story at rehearsals about the bride who almost went up in flames. It was my third wedding, so I was still getting my bearings as an officiant. We had this free standing candelabra that we used for the unity candle. After the couple lit the candle, which was off to my right, they returned to the center of the chancel. The only problem was that the bride’s train got caught on the base of the candelabra. As she moved toward the center, the candelabra began to tip over, with all three candles ablaze. Fortunately the maid of honor and I both saw what was happening and we reached out and caught the flaming candelabra before it could light up the lace-covered-dress.  That would have been quite the disaster, but it has become for me an interesting wedding story.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Martin Luther King Jr.: Nonviolence Is the Sword That Heals -- Sightings (Rory Johnson)

On Monday we will celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We do so in the shadow of increasing racial tensions. As a white male, I am conscious of the fact that my identity is not a contested one. It has always been assumed in America that my life matters. What has not always been assumed is the #BlackLivesMatter. I found this meditation on forgiveness published this week as the Thursday edition of Sightings to be worthy of a close reading. It is written by an African American professor of religion. His words might help us bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides. As Dr. Rory Johnson notes Dr. King spoke of nonviolence as the "sword that heals." May this be true for us. Read and respond. 

Martin Luther King Jr.: Nonviolence Is the Sword That Heals
By RORY JOHNSON   JAN 14, 2016
Parishioners pray and weep during services on June 21, 2015, at Emanuel A.M.E. Church where, four days earlier, Dylann Roof killed nine people                 Credit: David Goldman, Pool / AP Photo
“I forgive you.”

At the hearing for Dylann Roof, the daughter of Ethel Lance, one of the people Roof killed, told him: “I will never talk to her ever again, never be able to hold her again. I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. You hurt me, you hurt a lot of people, but I forgive you.”

If Sunday is celebration at Emanuel African American Church in Charleston as in other Christian congregations; Wednesday is preparation. Bible study is the midweek oasis, the recharging station, the momentary respite from the daily grind. The sanctuary is empty save the small gathering of the faithful bolstered only by ranks of pews sporadically populated with idling purses, totes, backpacks, and coats. Friends greet each other with ties askew, collars undone, comfy shoes unashamedly clashing with workaday chic, first names on the breast pockets, shirt tails set free, and the lingering scent of a workday done. It is the embodiment of fellowship.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Religion and Political Brutalism

I was fascinated by New York Times relatively conservative columnist David Brooks' recent response to the politics of Ted Cruz. He called it "pagan brutalism."  There is an apocalyptic, take no prisoners vision enunciated by the Presidential candidate. Now, if you know me at all you know that I'm not a member of Cruz's party and not likely to vote for him. So my concern isn't so much with who is doing what in the primary election race of the "other" party. It has to do with our national mood and the attractiveness of a candidate like Cruz to a significant segment of the Christian community.  

So, first an excerpt from Brooks' column:

But Cruz’s speeches are marked by what you might call pagan brutalism. There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them. When he is speaking in a church the contrast between the setting and the emotional tone he sets is jarring.
The fact that Cruz, whose father is a preacher, is a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian and has been strongly courting evangelical voters stands in sharp contrast to his rhetoric and his past actions as a government official. Brooks notes that Cruz, as Solicitor General of Texas, took a case to the Supreme Court demanding that a man who had been in prison for six years for shop lifting (when the maximum penalty was two years) be left in prison for a full sixteen years (as a habitual offender). He lost the case, but it shows that Cruz is not known for his grace and mercy, which are generally considered good Christian virtues.

My concern here really isn't with Cruz, but with those who are Christians who are attracted to what Brooks calls "pagan brutalism" (pagans probably want to object here on being connected with him and with brutalism) would be attractive to large numbers of Christians.  Is a narrow, ham-fisted, unforgiving, self-centered message in line with the message of Jesus?  I  have spent enough time among evangelicals (I'm a graduate of a leading evangelical seminary) to wonder why self-described evangelicals would embrace such a message? Indeed, if we believe Jesus to reveal God's purpose to us, then how does such a message fit with the call to love one's neighbor? 

So here's a question for all my Christian friends, whether on the left or the right or in the middle, how does our faith impress itself on our vision world? Or does our world impress itself on our faith? 

(I take up many of these issues in my book Faith in the Public Square, (Energion, 2011). 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Blasphemy - Sightings (Martin Marty)

I will admit that I'm a bit old-fashioned. When it comes to things religious, while I'm okay with a bit of irreverence, I'm not sure I like it when things get uncivil and indecorous.  Then there's blasphemy. Accusations of blasphemy often lead to violence or persecution. So when does irreverence become blasphemy?  That's a good question, and one that Martin Marty takes up in this piece for Sightings. I invite you to read and respond. While freedom of speech is vital, when do we push things too far. I'm with Marty that we need a bit of "awe" in at times awful world! 

By MARTIN E. MARTY   JAN. 11, 2016
Gathering held in Brussels in solidarity for the deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo, Jan. 7, 2015.
Credit: Valentina Calà / flickr
Those [of us] who are expected to monitor religious trends have reason to find talk of blasphemy a complex challenge to commentators and responsible citizens.

Islam is an international supplier of reasons for pondering and arguing themes associated with blasphemy. Most terrorism by factions in or at the edges of the Islamic world(s) is usually occasioned by fanatics who act in defense of Allah against heretics, the religious “other,” and “infidels” who are seen or claimed to be blasphemers.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Joy at the Wedding -- Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 2C

Pieter Bruegel, The Wedding Dance - DIA

John 2:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

2 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” 4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” 5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

                The Gospel of John begins rather oddly. John writes his prologue, which offers a powerful theological introduction to Jesus’ ministry. He is the word of God incarnate.  With that statement, the rest of chapter one of John takes from John’s ministry of baptism to John pointing to Jesus, calling him the Lamb of God. Over the next two days Jesus starts putting together a coterie of disciples. Then on the third day—presumably three days after John declares Jesus to be the Lamb of God—Jesus and his disciples have been invited to a wedding in Cana (2:1-2).  Things are moving quite rapidly, but why a wedding?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Oriented to God

We live in a secularized age, right? Or do we? It is true that "religion" is on the outs in much of the West, but to speak of this as a secularized age may be an overly western outlook.  Perhaps it is better to speak of orientation -- whether toward God or not. Some take a more "religious" perspective. Others a more secular one.

I'm reading a Netgalley version of Miroslav Volf's new book Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World. While I will be writing a full review, I thought I might take note of the book and make use of it to encourage some discussion about the role of religion in life.

Volf is a theologian, and thus he thinks about God. In this new book Volf writes about the role of religion in providing for the opportunity of flourishing as a species and as a world. Volf suggests that we have been created by God for relationship with God. He writes that "we are oriented toward God in the very fabric of our being." Religions of all stripes are expressions of this orientation. They may understand flourishing differently, but they presume that the divine desires that we flourish, and that they offer a way toward flourishing.

The question is one of orientation -- where we place ourselves.  Volf writes (and I don't have good page numbers from the Netgalley version):

We call ourselves "religious" if we embrace and articulate orientation toward God and see the world as more than just a sum (however conceptualized) of its components; we call ourselves "secular" if we don't. But the fact of the orientation isn't influenced by what we call ourselves or by anything we do, just as the reality of the world as creation isn't altered depending on whether we experience it as a divine gift or not.
Whatever we call ourselves, deep within us, there is this sense of the divine that we move toward. John Calvin called it the sensus divinitas (sense of the divine), while Augustine spoke of a sense of restlessness that can only be calmed by being in the presence of God. We may put our trust in science (and I value it highly), but it seems that whether we recognize it or not, we oriented to God.  The question then is how does this orientation lead to flourishing? 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

When Jesus was Baptized -- Sermon for Epiphany 1C

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, three convicts break free from the chain gang and head off on a journey to the home of the threesome’s leader. Everett, Pete, and Delmar have many interesting encounters and adventures along the way, just like Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In one of these encounters, they come upon a group lining up to be baptized in the river. This gathering multitude sings  Down to the River to Pray as they make their way toward the river and the preacher. 

Delmar seems to hear a  call to go down to the river to be immersed. He doesn’t go to the end of the line. No, he runs right up to the front and immediately gets baptized.  When he comes up out of the water, he claims to be a changed man. 
Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!
Not only that but the preacher told him all his sins were washed away, even the Piggly Wiggly he’d robbed. And when Everett pointed out that he had denied robbing the Piggly Wiggly, Delmar told him that the preacher told him that God forgave that sin as well. Living this new redeemed life wasn’t going to be easy, and Delmar fell short of his promise, but he tried the best he could to live as one of the saints of God.

Friday, January 08, 2016

Iran, the Saudis, and the US -Conflict and Complexity

From the Economist at On Being
We like easy answers to complex questions. Americans, especially Americans of European descent (like me), don't like to think of ourselves as being a colonial power. We don't mind being seen as the world's police (always keeping peace), but never as colonial powers. While we may never have had the direct rule over as many peoples as the French and British, we have our own colonial past (just ask the people of the Philippines). 

At this moment in time there is great turmoil in the Middle East. Not only is ISIS trying to control much of Syria and Iraq (it seems to be losing steam in Iraq), but we have the geo-political jockeying for power between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Many have taken to paint this as a a centuries old conflict between Shia and Sunni factions within Islam. While there is religious dimensions to the conflict, it's much more complex than that.  And the current conflict isn't a replay of a 7th century conflict. It's a modern one, with deep roots in Colonialism.  

I ran across a most helpful essay by Omid Safi, the Director of the Islamic Studies Center at Duke University. Safi offers "Ten Ways on How Not to Think About the Iran/Saudi Conflict."  Safi writes not as a political scientist, but as a religious scholar. 

Safi makes an important point about how the West sees the region:

 The attempt to explain the Iranian/Saudi conflict, or for that matter every Middle Eastern conflict, in purely religious terms is part of an ongoing Orientalist imagination that depicts these societies as ancient, unchanging, un-modern societies where religion is the sole determining factor (allegedly unlike an imagined “us,” who have managed to become modern and secular.)
Safi points out that both Iran and Saudi Arabia are modern states, where religion is a factor, but so are a lot of other things -- including oil.  Each of the points made by Safi are thought-provoking, and should be attended to carefully.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Last Call (Jerry Herships) -- A Review

LAST CALL: From Serving Drinks to Serving Jesus. By Jerry Herships. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015. Xi + 163 pages.

God gives differing gifts to different people. We’re all empowered by the Spirit, but not all have the same ministries. But in the end the point is the building up of the body of Christ. That's the message that Paul gives to the Corinthians. Jerry Herships is a gifted emcee for Jesus, and that is the story he tells in Last Call. The book under review is a memoir of a call to ministry, a unique path that leads to a somewhat unique form of ministry. 

In Last Call Jerry Herships tells how he got from Detroit, via Cedar Point, Los Angeles, and Orlando, to Denver, where he became an ordained United Methodist pastor of a unique community set in bars with a focused ministry with the homeless. Herships had honed his skill set for ministry over the course of time as an emcee, comedian, and bar tender.  A substantial portion of the book is focused on his journey from being an emcee at Cedar Point through his various jobs with comedy clubs, amusement parks, and bars. It appears that even though he wasn’t the best comedian (not that funny), he could introduce others.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Baptism: Bold Discipleship and Humble Spirit

This Sunday, like many preachers, I will be taking up the reading from Luke 3, which describes Jesus' Baptism. With that in mind I'm republishing a blog posting from 2009. I was reading through and blogging the book Disciples: Reclaiming our Identity, Reforming our Practice, (Chalice Press, 2009).  The book was authored by two Disciples of Christ leaders, one of whom -- Michael Kinnamon -- has been at the forefront of Disciple ecumenical efforts.  I share this because it speaks to the importance of the sacrament, and our dilemma in recognizing it.


As I continue to blog through Disciples: Reclaiming our Identity, Reforming our Practice, by Michael Kinnamon and Jan Linn, I come to their chapter on Baptism. As with the Lord's Table, Baptism has been a point of contention and division within the Christian community. That being said, our authors suggest that ecumenically there is a growing consensus -- despite the fact that the practice remains differentiated.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Baptism of God’s Beloved - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 1C

Baptism of Jesus - Jacopo Tintoretto (Cleveland Museum of Art)

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

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.” 
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”


                I was first baptized at St. Luke’s of the Mountains Episcopal Church in LaCrescenta, California. Years later, as a high schooler, I was immersed in a creek at summer camp in Oregon. I’ve even experienced the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as understood by Pentecostals.  I guess I have the bases covered.  What does it mean to be baptized?

Monday, January 04, 2016

Confucius for Christians (Gregg Ten Elshof) -- A Review

CONFUCIUS FORCHRISTIANS: What an Ancient Chinese Worldview Can Teach Us about Life in Christ.  By Gregg A. Ten Elshof. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015. Vii + 102 pages.

Tertullian may have asked what Athens had to do with Jerusalem, but the fact is as the Christian faith moved out from Jerusalem it took root in particular cultures. That meant that it had to be translated not only in to the language of the receptive communities, but their world views as well. We’ve struggled with this reality from the very beginning of the Christian movement, and it’s not unique to Christianity. Nonetheless, if Christianity is incarnational, it will be reframed in conversation with those world views. For the earliest Christians, that context was Greek. In Acts 17 Paul sought to frame his message within the parameters of Greek thought. While it didn’t work quite as well as Paul had hoped, he didn’t repudiate the effort. Since then, for better or worse, Christian theologians have recast the faith in conversation with the receptive communities. Yes, there have been moves to go back to the pristine foundations, but unless we all start speaking Aramaic and live in a first century Palestinian world, we’ll have to engage the world in which we live. That is, whatever the "biblical world view" might be, it will have to be understood in light of our own cultural dynamics. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that American Christianity can reflect an Enlightenment world view.

If Plato and Aristotle offered workable worldviews, what about Confucius? That is the question asked by Gregg Ten Elshof, a philosophy professor at Biola University, a relatively conservative Christian college in Southern California. Ten Elshof believes that there is much in Confucian thought, as made known through the Analects, that is compatible with Christian faith. To get there he distinguishes the Confucian Wisdom tradition from the religious components that might surround it. He suggests that Confucianism is less a religious tradition, though often placed in a religious category, and more a philosophy (akin to Platonism). 

Sunday, January 03, 2016

The True Light Cometh -- Reflection for Christmas 2C

I'm not preaching this morning, and since I wrote a lectionary reflection for the Epiphany text I thought I'd repost a reflection written for the John 1 text (the Gospel reading for Christmas 2C). John doesn't have an infancy narrative, but it does provide a theological prologue that is worth considering. May your day and the remainder of the year be a blessing! 

John 1:1-18 (New Revised Standard Version)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[e] who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.


                The prologue of John’s gospel is theologically rich.  It offers us a sense of where John will be going in his story of Jesus.  It is fitting that the Gospel of John begins in this fashion, as John’s Gospel tells the story in very different tones and colors from the Synoptics.  This is a theological statement, but that fact shouldn’t keep us from recognizing that John has a story, perhaps even a historical story,[i] to tell us.  But first things first – the one we meet in this Gospel is understood to be Word, Light, and Truth.

“In the Beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God,” and this Word that was God became flesh and dwelt among us.  That is the assumption that the Gospel begins with.  This idea that the Christ is the Word of God has proven fruitful for theological discourse down through the ages, from Origen to Karl Barth.  Because of this passage John’s Gospel is seen as presenting a very high Christology, one that lifts Jesus up into divinity, something that is much less visible in the Synoptic Gospels.  Thus, it’s not surprising that in our day, in our quests for the historical Jesus that we have a tendency to set John’s story of Jesus to the side.  Even the Lectionary itself simply uses John as filler, basing its three year cycle on the Synoptic Gospels.  But, this prologue is not simply a theological statement; it is also an invitation to see the presence of God in the one John says was Word made flesh.  As Karl Barth has so helpfully reminded us – the Word made flesh is the Revelation of God.   He writes:  “Theology responds to the Word which God has spokenstill speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel.”[ii]  In these eighteen verses, John pulls back the veil so we can have a glimpse at how God.

The lectionary gives the preacher/congregation the option of beginning the reading at verse 9, wherein the focus is on the “True Light, which enlightens everyone.”  This light, we’re told, is coming into the world.  That there is light coming into the world presupposes that the world itself is living in some form of darkness.  Such is the message we hear in verse 5, where John writes that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”     Later in the Gospel, in a debate with the religio-political leaders, Jesus boldly proclaims:  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Being that this Second Sunday of Christmas stands on the cusp of the day of Epiphany, a day in which we celebrate the “manifestation of God,” it is appropriate to lift up the idea of enlightenment.  In the story of the Magi, which is found in Matthew’s Gospel and not here, we’re told of a light shining in the darkness that leads Magi from the east to the Jesus.  They come bearing gifts, but also seeking enlightenment (Matthew 2:1-12).  We too come seeking light in our times of darkness, and each of us experiences darkness at different moments of our lives.

To be in the dark is to experience lostness.  When the lights go out and no light enters the place in which we exist – think of a cave – we don’t know where to go (John 12:35).  We can feel our way out, perhaps, but darkness brings with it fear, for we don’t know if we’re going in the right direction or if danger lurks nearby.  The world in which live has its own form of darkness.  Much of this darkness is systemic in nature.  It is the domain of the powers and principalities of this world.  John is concerned about such things.  But there is good news – there is light shining in the darkness.  The pathway is lit.  Our hearts and minds are enlightened.  And when the light is cast upon the land covered in darkness, we see these powers and principalities for what they are, not what they pretend to be.  To find this pathway out of darkness, this pathway that is lit by Christ, requires that we trust our lives to him (John 12:46) – that’s what the word believe means in John.

The word that goes with light in this prologue is the word Truth.  John 1:14 offers us an important summary statement:  “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. “  The glory of God is light and this light is full of grace and truth.  Pilate asks Jesus – what is truth? (John 18:37-38).  But Jesus simply presents himself as the representation of truth – he is, as John offers us in the prologue, the Word that is present in the Flesh, revealing the Glory that is God, together with God’s grace and truth.  This is the light we seek. 

That there is darkness in the world is not a secret.  That Christ is the Light of God who is present in our midst is Good News (Gospel).  For us, in this moment, who entrust our lives to Christ, we receive that light into our lives.  We become light bearers.  We have the opportunity and calling to shine the light of God’s Glory, revealed in Christ, into the darkness that is present in this world, uncovering that which is opposed to the grace and the truth that is God.  May we walk in this light, as we begin a new year as followers of the Word made Flesh, the one close to God's heart, the one who is made known in this one we follow.  Yes, we are called to bear witness to the Light that has come into the world, a light that cannot be overcome by the darkness.        

[i] On the question of the nature of this gospel see Richard Horsley and Tom Thatcher, John, Jesus, and the Renewal of Israel, (Eerdmans, 2013).
[ii] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction(Eerdmans, 1979), p. 20.