Thursday, March 31, 2016

Living in the Paschal Joy

Easter has come and gone, or so we think. I know that the week after Easter is often considered a lost week in the life of the church. The Sunday after Easter is often called Low Sunday, because attendance is down, not just from Easter Sunday, but in general. Many clergy take the week after Easter off.  Even if our schedules suggest that the big event is over, it's really only beginning. The Easter Season remains with us for the fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. 

Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann helps us find our bearings in this Easter season, as we move toward Pentecost, when we have another of the high notes in the life of the church. Schmemann notes in his book For the Life of the World  that Easter and Pentecost are the earliest and most compelling feasts and festivals in the Christian year. With that in mind he comments:

For fifty days after Easter it is granted to us to live in the paschal joy, to experience time as the feast. And then comes the “last and great” day of Pentecost and with it our return into the real time of this world. At Vespers of that day the Christians are told—for the first time since Easter—to kneel. The night is approaching, the night of time and history, of the daily effort, of the fatigue and temptations, of the whole inescapable burden of life. The Easter season is at its end—but as we enter the night, we know that the end has been transformed into a beginning, that all time is now the time after Pentecost (that is why we number all Sundays from this point until the next Easter season). This is the time in which the joy of the Kingdom, the “peace and joy” of the Holy Spirit, is at work. “There shall be no separation, O friends! said Christ.…” [Schmemann, Alexander (2010-04-01). For the Life of the World (Kindle Locations 837-843). St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. Kindle Edition.] 
Let us live in the paschal joy, as we prepare to re-enter the world in the Spirit. Yes, may the joy of Easter continue to be on our hearts, guiding us through thick and thin! 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Word Made Flesh

14 The Word became flesh and blood,
    and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
    the one-of-a-kind glory,
    like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
    true from start to finish. 
15 John pointed him out and called, “This is the One! The One I told you was coming after me but in fact was ahead of me. He has always been ahead of me, has always had the first word.” 
16-18 We all live off his generous bounty,
        gift after gift after gift.
    We got the basics from Moses,
        and then this exuberant giving and receiving,
    This endless knowing and understanding—
        all this came through Jesus, the Messiah.
    No one has ever seen God,
        not so much as a glimpse.
    This one-of-a-kind God-Expression,
        who exists at the very heart of the Father,
        has made him plain as day.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Easter Commissions - Lectionary Reflection -- Easter 2C

John 20:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 
24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” 
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

                Easter Sunday, like Christmas Eve, is only the beginning, not the end, of a liturgical season. On Easter morning Jesus broke free of the tomb, and according to John’s version of the story, Jesus encountered Mary (John 20:1-18). He gave her a commission: Go tell the disciples that I’m risen from the dead.  That was the morning service. Then, that evening, as the community gathered behind locked doors—because they were afraid of the authorities—Jesus made an appearance. In fact, he didn’t even have to knock. One moment he wasn’t there, and the next he was standing in their midst. You might call this the Sunday evening service, though it seems to have been better attended than the morning service.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Night Comes (Dale Allison) -- Review

NIGHT COMES: Death,Imagination, and the Last Things. By Dale C. Allison, Jr. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2016. X + 174 pages.

                When it comes to matters of eschatology, it seems that the dispensationalists have a corner on the market. People read Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye and figure that’s what eschatology is about. It’s true that eschatology as a theological discipline speaks to matters of the future, but it has this moment impact. While many preachers resist delving into matters of eschatology, at least more progressive/liberal preachers, these matters remain of great interest to the broader populace. It is important then that they are offered an alternative to the popular messages. One who has a deep interest in such matters, and brings deep wisdom rooted in close attention to the biblical story and Christian history, is Dale Allison, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Night Comes is Allison’s offering to those seeking a word of wisdom, one that is rooted both in personal experience and deep scholarship.

                You might say that this book centers on death and how we deal with it. Whether we’re talking about resurrection, heaven, or hell, we’re dealing with issues that involve matters beyond the grave. Death is something that we all face, even if science is hard at work prolonging life and even suggesting that we can envision living hundreds of years (though I’m not sure I’m eager to live to deep old age without some assurance that I can keep my faculties and independent living).  Perhaps one reason that we pursue a cure for death is that we fear death. Uncertainty about what lies beyond is scary. Allison is one who embraces the message of life beyond the grave, even if we don’t have full details. He writes that “for me, Christianity without hope beyond death is of reduced relevance and of diminished interest” (p. 16). There are those content with this life and need no other, but for many, especially those for whom life is difficult and challenging, the vision of something new and different gives strength and hope to live out this life with anticipation.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Announcing the Good News - Sermon for Easter

Acts 10:34-43

“I know that my Redeemer liveth.” These words from an old Gospel song define the meaning of Easter. They serve to remind us why we gather here this morning. In fact, this is why we gather every Sunday morning. We come to celebrate the Good News that Christ our Lord is risen from the Dead. So, with joyful hearts we can sing our alleluias! 

This Easter message is not without its challenges. It appears that the idea of resurrection has gone out of style, even among Christians. It doesn’t seem to fit our modern mind set. In fact, the whole idea of the afterlife is under close scrutiny. Nonetheless, the Resurrection continues to stand at the center of the Christian faith.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday's Seventh Word: Into Your Hands I Commend My Spirit

Andrea di Bartolo, The Crucifixion 
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.  (Luke 23: 44-49 NRSV)

We have been with Jesus as he hung there on the cross since around nine in the morning. He has been suffering greatly. We’ve heard his cry of desolation and the request for something to quench his thirst. We’ve heard him offer words of forgiveness and take care of family business. Then came what seemed like the last word -- “It is Finished.”  That word, however, has given way to one truly final word: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” With these words, which were accompanied by the darkness the covered the land at about noon, Jesus breathed has last breath. 

The Roman cross that Jesus died upon was reserved for those who challenged Rome’s rule. To speak of a kingdom, even if it’s not of this world, sent a message that Rome could not and would not tolerate. Sunday evening I watched the classic Bible epic Ben Hur, which reinforced that message. Judah Ben Hur’s childhood friend, the Roman Tribune Messala, said of the emperor: “He is God! The only god! He has power, real power on Earth!” Messala implied that the God of Israel had no such power. When Rome placed Jesus on the cross, it told the people of Judea, that the emperor would not permit the creation of any rival kingdom, whether of this world or not.  

When we attend to these seven last words, we’re invited into the complexity that is Good Friday. The cross reminds us of the human capacity for cruelty and malice, especially when political power is at stake. It is also a reminder of God’s compassionate presence even in the midst of suffering. If we ended with the words “It is finished,” we might have been left with a feeling of despair. But that is not how it ends. 

In Luke’s vision of Good Friday, Jesus commends his spirit to God’s care. Jesus ends life in this world with a statement of trust in God’s goodness and grace. That trust doesn’t go unnoticed. The Centurion, the soldier charged with overseeing this process, acknowledges Jesus’ innocence.

These last words leave us with a sense of anticipation. Maybe this isn’t the end of the story. Luke tells us that many who watched this process beat their chests in grief, but those closest to Jesus, including the women who followed him from Galilee, watched from a distance. These are intriguing words. They might suggest that those closest to him were wondering what would be next.

It is good that we come today to meditate upon the cross and its meaning for our lives. It’s important to remember that without Good Friday there is no Easter, but without Easter there is nothing Good about this Friday. We must hold them together. 

If we can hold on to Jesus’ statement of faith in the compassionate care of God, then we can respond in our own moments of death with the words of faith that were upon Jesus’ lips as he breathed his last: “Into your hands I commend my spirit.”  

Preached by: Robert D. Cornwall
Ecumenical Good Friday Service
St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
Troy, Michigan
March 25, 2016   

Good Friday and Christ's Act of Friendship

It is Good Friday. We find ourselves at the foot of the cross, where Jesus, our Lord, hangs, suffering and dying. It is an image that has defined the Christian faith. It has inspired manifold pieces of art. It is found in one form or another in most of our congregations. The cross has traditionally been understood, at least in relationship to humanity, in terms of atonement. Jesus died on the cross and as a result we who are estranged from God are reconciled to God. There are varieties of atonement theologies, though in American Christianity the most prominent is known as “penal substitution.” That understanding that has its roots in Anselm’s “satisfaction” theory presents problems for many Christians, including me. Many progressive Christians have abandoned atonement theologies in total, but in doing this we often lose contact with the cross and a certain richness to our theologies.

On this Good Friday I want to call us back into conversation with the cross. Luther’s theology of the cross, a theology embraced by among others Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was offered up as a challenge to a triumphalist theology of glory.  But some of the traditional categories and conversations fall short. We need to find new ways of engaging the cross so that we might be transformed by its riches.

With this in mind I have been spending time with Deanna Thompson’s book Crossing the Divide (Fortress, 2004). Deanna is a feminist theologian of the cross, and I made use of Deanna’s book yesterday in relationship to the Last Supper, and I wish to bring her back into the conversation. I’m intrigued by her reimagining Luther’s vision of the marriage analogy of a joyous exchange, which presents significant problems for us, with her concept of friendship as joyous exchange, an exchange that transforms. 

She writes:  

Rather than a joyous exchange between Christ and the wicked harlot, I propose a metaphor that better matches the sensibility of a feminist theologian of the cross. It is the model of friendship: God's atoning work for us on the cross is done through Jesus's befriending humanity. Drawing on Luther's most beloved gospel narrative of John, we hear Jesus tell his disciples that "No one has greater love than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends" (15:13). This model is suggested in the spirit of Luther's use of various images-from the devil capturing the bait to the bridegroom taking on the sins of his bride-to convey the meaning of the cross. Luther's theology of the cross was constantly applied and adapted to various occasions, and this occasion for a feminist theology of the cross calls out for an image that will better "express certain aspects of the God-world relationship in our time.""' Luther likely utilized the metaphor of marriage for the self-giving love that ideally exists between spouses. In John, the image of friendship explains the meaning of Jesus's life and, specifically, his death on the cross. The image of Jesus laying down his life for his friends highlights the "gift character" that is crucial to Luther's understanding of what God did on the cross. Sallie McFague points out that friendship implies a certain freedom; it is less laden with a sense of duty than marriage is as traditionally understood)."' Friends freely choose to be in relation to one another. Is that not an appropriate image of Jesus's willingness to give of himself? Jesus was not paying a debt to God. Jesus the Friend acted freely, giving his very life on behalf of his friends.  [Deanna A. Thompson. Crossing the Divide (Kindle Locations 1761-1771). Kindle Edition.]

Her idea of the self-giving nature of Jesus’ friendship being transformative offers, I think, a way forward, toward engaging fully the cross as a place in which God brings forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration to our lives.  She speaks of the future orientation of remaining in the love of Christ that is expressed through this act of friendship, even in the face of betrayal. Thus, even as Jesus experiences our suffering and sense of abandonment, in the end God does not abandon him, nor does God abandon us, we who are Christ’s friends.  There is more here to be explored, but let us on the Good Friday not let go of the cross, but seek to understand its power in ways that reflect the love of God for all humanity. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

A Meal of Friendship -- Thoughts for Holy Thursday

This evening many congregations (at least those in the Christian West) will gather to  remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples. That meal became a foundation for the Eucharist or Lord's Supper. We observe this celebration in different ways, but it is important remember that we gather at the Table as friends of Jesus. With that in mind I wanted to share a paragraph from a book by feminist theologian of the cross and student of Luther, Deanna Thompson. In her book Crossing the Divide, Deanna invites to re-envision and re-engage with the cross of Christ, bringing Luther into conversation with feminism. It's a wonderful book, but what I want to share speaks specifically about the Lord's Supper. Her comments are rooted in her conceptualization of the atonement as a transformative meeting of friends.

She writes:  

The sacrament of the Lord's Supper also binds the church to the crucified and risen Christ. A tight connection exists between the sacrament and Jesus's relationship to his friends, for sharing a meal "is the oldest ritual of friendship, [and] it is also a ritual so basic to Christianity that a case could be made that it is a, if not the, central motif in Jesus' ministry and in the early church."" Jesus's friendships often included a shared meal, culminating in the last meal shared with his closest friends. The last supper before his crucifixion, however, is marked not only by friendship, but also by betrayal. The sacrament of communion recapitulates that meal, including the betrayal and the cross, but "It does so as the Easter feast"" A feminist theologian of the cross emphasizes along with Luther that the sacrament of communion implies more than the subjective experience of remembering. To claim Christ's real presence in the Lord's Supper points to the objective status of Christ's presence as the risen crucified victim, the one in whom hope is also embodied. The Christ encountered in the meal is the one we encounter as a stranger, as our victim, to whom we confess our sins, admit our brokenness. The hope experienced in the Last Supper comes from standing before the risen Christ as a restored betrayer, a beloved friend." Like Mary Magdalene, we are offered back our past as a past that does not ultimately define us; instead we are defined as forgiven, as justified, and we are opened to a vocation that calls us into friendship with any and all friends of Christ.
[Deanna A. Thompson. Crossing the Divide (Kindle Locations 2056-2065). Kindle Edition.] 
She writes that when we come to the Lord's Table we stand before the risen Christ "as a restored betrayer, a beloved friend." We may be implicated in the actions that lead to the cross, but as our friend Jesus transforms us from betrayer to friend. 

May we come to the Table this evening ready not only to remember but to be transformed by our encounter with the crucified and risen Christ.  Yes, this meal precedes Good Friday, but it leads to Easter. As Deanna declares, this is an Easter Feast!

Wafer-Thin Commitment -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

This political season has brought to the fore questions about what makes for an evangelical. We are told that scores of Evangelicals are voting for Donald Trump, and we wonder why. He sure doesn't seem like an Evangelical, but again what is the definition?  Martin Marty takes a look at the question as he takes note of a couple of Evangelical observers, including David Gushee.  Of course, this isn't a new question -- just ask Donald Dayton, who was asking that question three decades back!  In this piece Marty takes note of Gushee's use of the terms "wafer-thin" and "half-churched" to describe the state of the Christian community. Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Wafer-Thin Commitment
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 21, 2016
                 Credit: michael_swan / flickr
Now and then a word or a phrase is understood to be so appropriate to a situation that it enters the vocabulary or catalog of slogans. Thus Robert D. Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” became coin of the linguistic realm. Generations ago we suddenly knew what being “other-directed” was, thanks to the work of David Riesman. Readers can no doubt think of many more. While Sightings has no credentials for coining or establishing such a word or phrase, we found one (or two) this week that ought to receive attention.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Dining at Jesus' Table

Holy Week is upon us. One event in Holy Week is the gathering on Thursday to remember the meal Jesus shared on the night before he went to the cross. According to biblical tradition Jesus was participating in a Passover Meal (Luke 22:7-23). This meal forms the foundation for the Christian practice of the Eucharist. In most Christian communities, Jesus’ “words of institution” will be pronounced over the elements of bread and wine (or grape juice) whenever the community gathers at the Table for communion. The question that vexes the church is who should be invited to the Table.

Since at least the second century a majority in the Christian community have assumed that only the baptized (or the confirmed) should come to the Table and partake. This makes this sort of a family meal, and the boundaries of this family are starkly drawn. It may be that on Holy Thursday, an invitation will be given and some in attendance will be purposely excluded. There are theological reasons for doing this, but I wonder whether they are true to the spirit of Jesus.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Resurrection: Idle Tales? -- Lectionary Reflection for Easter C

Luke 24:1-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
24 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words,and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

                The lectionary offers the preacher two options when it comes to the Gospel readings for Easter Sunday. You can choose from John 20 or Luke 24. John offers us an actual conversation with Jesus (Mary Magdalene). Luke on the other hand offers a heavenly message (an angelic messenger) and an empty tomb. The actual appearances in Luke begin on the road to Emmaus (in the passage following). For this Easter lectionary reflection, I’ve chosen to engage the more ambiguous Lukan account rather than John’s message.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Still a Mother (Joy Freeman & Tabatha Johnson, eds.) -- Review

STILL A MOTHER: Journeys through Perinatal Bereavement. Edited by Joy M. Freeman and Tabatha D. Johnson. Foreword by Richard P. Olson. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2016. Xi + 156 pages.

                No one is really ever ready when death knocks. It is, scripture suggests, the last enemy. Christians take comfort in the message of the resurrection, but the loss we feel when death comes is real and often overwhelming. This is especially true when death takes a child. A parent’s grief can be overwhelming. When death takes a child in the womb, too often parents, especially mothers, can suffer in silence. It is a form of death that we as society often deem different and thus not worthy of our attention. This forces families to grieve in silence. Indeed, the church is often bereft of any true signs of support. We have rituals and prayers for most forms of death, but rarely if ever will you find resources that speak to miscarriage. As a pastor I was never prepared in seminary or afterwards to respond appropriately. Only recently did one family’s grief after a miscarriage bring me to awareness of the deep and abiding need for spiritual support. Death in the womb is as real as any other form of death, and I finally, after over thirty years of ministry, finally understood this reality.

                Once you end the silence and begin to pay attention, you being to discover that miscarriage and other forms of perinatal bereavement are quite common. You begin to hear stories of deep loss and grief, which endure over many years. As a result, I have begun to pay attention, and when I encounter resources that can be of help to families and to those who come to their support, I must share the news. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Open the Gates of Righteousness - Sermon for Palm Sunday

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29

“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it!”  Indeed, as Paul declared, this “is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2).  Therefore, “open the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.” 

We love parades, especially parades that celebrate a hero’s return or a championship team. Today is Palm Sunday, which we mark with a parade of palms.  The children and choir enter the sanctuary waving palm branches, even as we sing to Jesus, declaring him to be “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

Morocco's Program for Securing Religious Toleration -- Sightings (Aomar Boum)

Even as Islam becomes part of the American political debate, and ISIS takes center stage in Syria and Iraq, we rarely hear about moderating forces. In this essay Aomar Boum of UCLA points our attention to Morocco, where the government has taken an important role in forming a moderate tolerant understanding of Islam. It's schools are hard at work training new leadership for Africa and Europe. It is, as the author notes, a continuation of a project that once existed in Andalusia (Muslim Spain). It's an interesting essay, and one we need to lift up. Here is an alternative that rarely gets attention. But then that maybe why we don't hear about Morocco. It's too peaceful! 

Morocco's Program for Securing Religious Toleration: A Model for the Region? 
By AOMAR BOUM   MAR. 17, 2016
At prayer in Fez, Morocco.                                                   Credit: Luisa Puccini /
Since the turn of the 21st century, Arab states and societies have witnessed an increasing debate over Islam. Middle Eastern and North African states lost their long-held grip over the religious domain, which they controlled until recently through their oversight of mosques and of public and private media. Morocco, however, has regained control by implementing a set of national policies that others in the region would do well to emulate.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Preaching Politics (Clay Stauffer) - Review

PREACHING POLITICS: Proclaiming Jesus in an Age of Money, Power, and Partisanship. By Clay Stauffer. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2016. 115 pages.

                I was raised in a politically active household. My father was chair of the Siskiyou County Republican Party and had a regular radio spot. He even made it into Who’s Who in American Politics. I did my part as a child going door to door handing out brochures and buttons for candidates ranging from local to national. I even imagined becoming a politician. I’ve really never been as politically active as I was at age fourteen.

                I remain extremely interested in politics, but as a pastor I must temper my political activities. That is, I have to remember that I serve a congregation that isn’t politically homogeneous. While I do engage in community organizing and address prophetically (hopefully) important issues that have political implications, I don’t bring a partisan vision into the pulpit. Preachers often walk fine line when it comes to politics. Many of us believe it is important to speak to controversial issues, but we also must take a pastoral approach. At a time when the body politic is increasingly polarized this becomes incredibly difficult. This especially true when the conversation involves money.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Futures Projected - Sightings (Martin Marty)

What did theologians and historians project for the church back in 1966? That's 50 years in the past. I was a little boy living in Mount Shasta, CA. Martin Marty ran across an old book that offered four projections. What do you think about these projections? Are the right on or not? Have we followed their advice or not? By 1966 the great church expansion was starting to retract a bit. Was their vision hopeful? What is your vision for 50 years hence? Take a read and offer your thoughts.

Futures Projected
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 14, 2016
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel, Colorado Springs, Colorado                 Credit: wallyg / flickr
Let’s step back this week from the overdoses of religion-in-public-life evidences which are candidates for Sightings these seasons and look for some perspective by using the rear-view mirror provided by historians, theologians, and ethicists. Recently, while rearranging some books in my library, a skinny orange-colored paperback tumbled from the shelf and bid for attention: The Future of the American Church.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

If Jesus was a politician . . . - A Lectionary Reflection for Palm Sunday

Luke 19:28-40 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying, 

“Blessed is the king
    who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
    and glory in the highest heaven!” 

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40 He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”


                Palm Sunday us once again upon us (unless you’re choosing to do Passion Sunday instead). Palm Sunday is a rather popular day in the liturgical year. After all, who doesn’t like a parade?  At least most children seem to enjoy parading into the sanctuary waving palm branches of some sort. If your Lenten services have been relatively sober, then this is welcome relief. The problem that Palm Sunday presents, especially if you’re a preacher and know the rest of the story, is that things don’t seem to end well. Triumphal entry leads to crucifixion.

                If you read the story closely it does appear that Jesus was trying to trigger a reaction from the crowd streaming into Jerusalem. It’s not like he didn’t know what was going to occur when he decided to ride a colt into Jerusalem. It is a rather apocalyptic moment that draws upon biblical imagery and unsettled political conditions. With tensions running high in the city, it wouldn’t take much to ignite a protest. And the Roman overlords didn’t take kindly to such things. Many within the religious leadership in Jerusalem would have also been aware of the effects of provocative actions. It was in their best interest to keep things under control, especially when this was one of the biggest pilgrimage events of the year. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

Youthful Preaching (Richard Voelz) -- A Review

YOUTHFUL PREACHING: Strengthening the Relationship between Youth, Adults, and Preaching. (Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching Series). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. X + 213 pages.

                If you look around many congregations on Sunday morning, you probably won’t find too many children or even adolescents present during the sermon. They may be present in the building, but often not in the sanctuary. It seems there is something of a disconnect between the pulpit and young people. When it comes to homiletical theory, youth are just as invisible as they are in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Why is this? That’s the question that Richard Voelz seeks to provide an answer, or at least the starting point for finding an answer, in this scholarly look at the relationship of preaching and our youth. 

                Voelz is currently the senior minister of John’s Creek Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Georgia, and recently called to be an assistant professor of preaching at Union Presbyterian Seminary (Richmond, VA). The book in question is a revision of Voelz’s dissertation for his Ph.D. in preaching at Vanderbilt University. In writing this dissertation Voelz discovered that very little attention is given to youth and preaching. It is largely unexplored territory, and as one who has a Ph.D. that is what you are looking for in a dissertation topic. You want to plow new ground. That this ground that needs to be plowed, however, is lamentable. Fortunately, Voelz has chosen to take it up. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

It’s a New Day, A New Pathway! A Sermon for Lent 5C

Isaiah 43:16-21

Eight years ago this month Cheryl, Brett, and I came out to meet and greet the congregation. It was a most interesting trip that included picking out the home we now live in. Just so we would know what we were getting into, it snowed while we were here. Then on Sunday morning, in her sermon, Shirley suggested that it was time to let go of the ghost of Edgar Dewitt Jones. That name might not mean much to some, but for others it represents the heart of Central Woodward. Even long after his passing, this founding pastor has been revered. While I enjoy reading his sermons and letters, I would say that his ghost is haunting other places these days. Shirley’s point, of course, was that a new day was coming and it was time to let go of some of the past. 

Lent is a season of letting go. The stories we’ve been exploring as we’ve moved through Lent have spoken about wandering in the wilderness. We’ve heard stories about moving from one place to another. Last week we even heard a word about arrival. But now we’re back on the move. It seems as if that’s the way it is with the people of God. After all, our spiritual ancestor was a “wandering Aramean” (Deut. 26:5). When you’re a wanderer, you had better travel light. That means letting go of things. 

Friday, March 11, 2016

I’m not in on the Revolution

                Revolutions tend to be blood affairs. Even the Glorious Revolution, which was largely bloodless as far as revolutions go, still had its share of blood. Ever hear of the Battle of the Boyne? If you’re Irish, you probably know about it. Though it occurred in Ireland it pitted the forces of James II, the former king of England, against the forces of his son-in-law who had run him out of England, William III.  Not much fighting in England, but I think the Irish still are fighting it! 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Searching for Happiness (Martin Thielen) -- A Review

SEARCHING FOR HAPPINESS: How Generosity, Faith, and OtherSpiritual Habits Can Lead to a Full Life. By Martin Thielen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xi + 165 pages.

                We all want to be happy. The question is, what does mean to be happy? Once we answer that question, how do we get there? Beyond that, what role might faith play in happiness? These are some of the questions that emerge in Martin Thielen’s latest book. Thielen has a few ideas about what it takes to be happy. These are questions that I as a pastor often wrestle with—both in my own life and in pastoral care (that would include preaching). This book is a pastoral one that has a hint of the self-help genre.  When it comes to the secret of happiness, the author of this book believes that contentment is the key. The book offers us ten practices that Thielen believes can lead to happiness.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Death Books - Sightings (Martin Marty)

As a pastor I'm very aware of the reality of death. I am called upon to be with persons and families at moments of death. In funerals and memorial services I am asked to help family and friends make sense of this loss. I am also called upon to help those facing death make sense of what seems close at hand -- do they fight or do they accept reality. For those I attend to, there is usually a sense of spiritual value involved. For grieving family and person contemplating their own death there is the comfort of resurrection. But what if that is not there? In any case, death is an enigma. We resist and we accept. Martin Marty takes note of a recent book that speaks to this enigma. I invite you to read and reflect.

Death Books
By MARTIN E. MARTY   MAR. 7, 2016
Credit: Kzenon /
Religion in political campaigns, church-state controversies, clerical abuse scandals, and abortion arguments, received due (and over-due?) attention in the media for another week. Having sighted more than enough items in those now-familiar fields, we looked for attention to and coverage of religion as it is experienced regularly by most people. One event that reaches not only “most,” but “all,” people is death. The obituaries are full of religious references, quite naturally, but there are also many philosophical treatments of this universal experience.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Anointed for Burial -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5C

John 12:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
                12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 
                        9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
                Jesus restored Lazarus, his friend, to life. That brought Jesus much notoriety (in the Gospel of John). Now that Lazarus was once again alive Jesus sat down for a meal with him. Of course, Martha served. I should note that Martha appears in the Gospel of Luke, along with her sister Mary, with much the same configuration of relationships (Luke 10:38-42). Although in Luke there isn’t a Lazarus to raise from the dead. In Luke it is Martha who complains about Mary’s decision to hang out with Jesus instead of helping with the meal. In this case Martha simply serves, and it is Judas who complains about Mary’s actions. It would seem then that while the details differ, there is a connection between these two stories.

Monday, March 07, 2016

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (John Spong) -- A Review

BIBLICAL LITERALISM:A Gentile Heresy. By John Shelby Spong. San Francisco: Harper One, 2016. Xii + 394 pages.

                The charge of heresy is a strong one. In the past charges of heresy could get one thrown out of the church if not worse. It’s probably not a word to be thrown around lightly. So, when a book arrives carrying the title Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy one will want to proceed with caution. When the person writing the book has been called a heretic himself, we might wonder what we’re in store for as we read. The question raised by the title concerns the way we ought to read the Bible. If to read the Bible literally is a Gentile heresy, what does that mean? In what ways did Gentiles introduce heretical ideas into the Christian community? In other words, how did Gentiles mess things up?

                The author of this book with a provocative title is John Shelby Spong, the long retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Spong has long been a provocative voice within the Christian community. He has regularly pushed boundaries with a “take no prisoners” attitude. On the positive side he has pushed the cause of women in ministry and welcoming LGBT persons into the life of the church. On the other hand, he has often used his position in the church to disparage those with whom he disagrees. And we see some of that in this book. Those who would hold the Bible, for instance, to be Word of God (a theological term) are said to be illiterate. He also suggests that ending the read reading of Scripture in worship with the oft-used phrase “this is the Word of the Lord” is, in his words, “little more than the perpetuation of religious ignorance and religious prejudice” (p. 11) It would seem that his purpose in writing this book (and previous books) is to save Christianity from itself by making it intellectually acceptable.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Arrival in the Land -- Sermon for Lent 4C

Last stop in Wyoming - Journey East 2008

Joshua 5:9-12

If you’ve ever moved across the country, you know what it’s like to finally arrive at your new home. Even if your furniture and housewares are a few days behind you, it feels good to enter the new house and begin to settle in.  

We’ve made a few long distance moves as a family over the years, with the longest being the last one that brought us from Santa Barbara to Troy. It took a few days of travel to get here. We stayed in a few motels and of course ate at a variety of restaurants, including a few fast-food joints. We crossed deserts, rivers, mountains, and plains. When we arrived in Troy, we were welcomed with a good meal and a house that had been cleaned and prepared with food staples and paper goods. Yes, it was good to enter the house we would call our own.   

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Third Reconstruction (William J. Barber) -- A Review

THE THIRD RECONSTRUCTION: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. By William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. Xvi + 151 pages.

                I remember the first time I heard the Reverend William Barber II speak. It was the night following the delivery of the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. I was in Orlando, not far from where the court had met, for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The NAACP was holding their national convention in the same venue. I remember the night the verdict was delivered quite well. I overheard a group of young adults who had been at the convention talk about the verdict and the emergency meeting that was about to be held. We at the General Assembly were stunned ourselves. So, the next evening, as we gathered for worship, and before the speaker for the night came on stage, Rev. Barber spoke to us as a representative of the NAACP. His message that evening was powerful. While he represented the NAACP that night, he also spoke as a Disciples of Christ pastor. In these dual roles he called on us as Disciples to embrace the cause of racial justice. Since that night I've had several opportunities to hear him speak and each time I have been impressed by the powerful message he brings to those who gather to listen. He is one of America’s leading prophetic voices, but his ministry is local to North Carolina, where he serves as the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and as pastor of a local Disciples congregation.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

No More Bullies

If you have been watching the current political campaigns one candidate has stuck out for his vulgarity and bullying behavior. That person would be Donald Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. His rallies, speeches, tweets, and debate performances have been marked by his complete disregard for others. He takes great pleasure in insulting his opponents and all who would differ from him. What is perhaps more distressing than his behavior is the support being given to him. He appears to be tapping into a strong "us versus them" populism that is linked to an apparent desire for an authoritarian leaders. It seems that a significant number of Americans want a President that will "stick it to everybody else," whether friend of foe. A significant number of Americans appear to believe that the nation isn't being properly respected. So, we turn to the biggest bully on the block and offer him the keys to the kingdom.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Welcome Home! - A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4C

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

                15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 
                3 So he told them this parable: 
                11 Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 
                25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”