Thursday, September 29, 2016

Vote Your Conscience (Brian Kaylor) - Review

VOTE YOUR CONSCIENCE: Party Must Not Trump Principles. By Brian Kaylor. Jefferson City, MO: Union Mound Publishing, 2016. 219 pages.

                As I write this review it is just a few days after the first 2016 Presidential debate, and less than six weeks until the 2016 elections. Those who choose to vote, and I will be voting, will elect leaders and representatives from local to national. Most prominent, of course, is the Presidential election. This is a most unusual year. Both major candidates carry tremendous baggage, though I would argue that one carries much more than the other. There are minor party candidates but our system isn’t designed for truly multi-party elections. The electoral college requires that the winner garner a majority of electoral votes. It’s been a while since a third party candidate won even one state. It won’t happen this time either.               

                For people of faith elections pose interesting challenges. The government is not a religious entity (though sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between state and church due to a strong tradition of civil religion).  There are no officially religious parties, though people tend to line up with a particular party that seems to best align with their perceived moral visions. I am a registered Democrat and have been since seminary. I am a Democrat because overall it better aligns with my moral principles, which are fueled by my faith tradition. Others will choose a different party because they have chosen to emphasize a different set of principles. This year the candidacy of Donald Trump, a man who seems to have little serious religious sensibilities (beyond the Power of Positive Thinking), is receiving overwhelming support from White Evangelicals, despite what many consider unchristian statements and positions. Their decision is largely due to Trumps promise to nominate so-called “pro-life” judges and support “religious liberty,” including removing the restrictions on political endorsements.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What's with Relevance in Religion?

Most religions are quite ancient. They preserve ancient practices and rituals that can seem odd and out of place at times. In our day we hear a lot about relevance. Megachurch pastors promise "relevant Bible teaching," which more often than not is pop psychology with a few proof texts mixed in. We clamor for relevance and seek to weed out the obsolete, but is that always the right thing to do?

I must confess that I am a pastor in a denomination that in its origins sought to cleave away all encrustations that got in the way of restoring New Testament Christianity. Thus, in good Enlightenment manner, we tossed away centuries of "tradition." Now, some of that work was probably necessary. Getting back to the roots is often a necessary act, but sometimes we proverbially "throw the baby out with the bathwater."  

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Doing Our Duty - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20C

Luke 17:5-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 
7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

                Talk of slavery is always difficult, especially in the United States, where race-based slavery is part of our national story. It is as Jim Wallis calls it our “original sin.” Most people in this country who are of African descent are descendants of men and women who were brought here without their consent to serve their white masters. It took a war to end slavery and another century to end Jim Crow. We continue to deal with the ramifications of slavery to this day. So, reading a parable like this one from Luke 17 is difficult. To do so a week after the dedication of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, even as football players protest against injustice and oppression by kneeling during the National Anthem, and the nation tries to make sense of two more shootings of black men by police, this passage seems out of place. With this as our context, what should we make of Jesus’ parable about the proper behavior of a slave? 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Songs for the Waiting (Magrey DeVega) -- Review

SONGS FOR THE WAITING: Devotions Inspired by the Hymns of Advent. By Magrey R. DeVega.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Xiv + 102 pages.

            American Christians are an impatient lot, at least that is true around the time of Advent. Although the liturgical season of Advent is designed to help us prepare to welcome the incarnate one into our midst, we seem intent on skipping from the Thanksgiving Table to Christmas morning, when we intend to open the presents that were purchased on Thanksgiving evening, if not before. Indeed, signs of Christmas now can be seen well before Halloween. When it comes to the church, a lot of people struggle with Advent. Since the radio stations begin playing Christmas music on Thanksgiving Day, why should we wait four weeks to sing Christmas songs in church? While I love Christmas carols and hymns, I also find the often neglected Advent hymns to be spiritually inspiring. They tend to be quieter and slower than most Christmas carols, but there are important messages embedded in hymns like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  So what might need is a devotional book that can help us explore these texts.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Feed the Hungry - Sermon for Pentecost 19C

Luke 16:19-31

There are two parables in Luke 16, and in both of them Jesus speaks to the proper valuing of money and material resources. He puts things into proper perspective, and that makes them good texts for stewardship sermons. Stewardship is about more than paying bills. Stewardship is a reflection of our covenant relationship with God and with one another. The picture painted in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a bit clearer than the parable of the dishonest steward, but together they remind us about what it means to be a faithful disciple and about our responsibilities to each other.  

There are several verses separating the two parables that the creators of the lectionary chose to omit. That is probably because passages like this can lead to anti-Jewish ideas. In this case Jesus chastises the Pharisees for being lovers of money. If we can steer clear of caricaturing the Pharisees as self-righteous money grubbers, perhaps we can hear in the omitted verses a reminder that the love of money can corrupt us and keep us from loving one another. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

Refusing to Stand: Can America's Civil Religion Tolerate Dissent? -- Sightings (John Stackhouse)

Colin Kaepernick has caused quite a stir -- not for his prowess on the football field -- but for his refusal to stand during the National Anthem. While he has his reasons, many believe that since he's paid to entertain, then he should stand and stop talking about politics. John Stackhouse, a Canadian evangelical historian and theologian, offers his take on the mixture of civil religion and athletics, inviting us to consider whether this is a good mixture. I want to note that Stackhouse is Canadian, as it is often good to get an outside viewpoint!  Take a read and offer your thoughts.  

Refusing to Stand: Can America's Civil Religion Tolerate Dissent?
By JOHN G. STACKHOUSE, JR.   September 22, 2016
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick | Photo credit: bmward_2000 viaCompfight cc
Even people who do not follow the National Football League likely have heard of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem before games this season.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends (David Gushee) -- Review

A LETTER TO MY ANXIOUS CHRISTIAN FRIENDS: From Fear to Faith in Unsettled Times. By David P. Gushee. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. 130 pages.

                We live in unsettled times, when fear seems to be the driving force in our lives. It is reflected at times in our religious life, and it is especially prevalent in our political life. What is a Christian to do? Perfect love may cast out all fear, but sometimes love is in short supply, even in Christian communities. This leads to anxiety. This current 2016 election cycle is one of the most angst producing seasons I’ve known in my life. The political season is causing Christians to wrestle with uncomfortable questions about our relationship to culture and nation.

                Having written two books on faith and public life, one being a collection of essays and the other a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, I have given some attention over the years to this question. Even if my first allegiance is to God, and therefore God is first not America, I am an American citizen, and I love my country, warts and all. I believe in voting and participating in public life. I believe that we have a role to play in the common good. So, how do I determine how my faith and life in public connect?  What we need is a wise and calming voice. One of those voices is David Gushee, a professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University. It is out of his professional capacity as a teacher of ethics and his commitment to Christ that informs this “letter.” In an earlier age we might call this a broadside.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Getting Religion -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

We live in a time when faith communities are struggling to attract new members. Once large churches are a fraction of their size. Church members wonder what happened. Where did all the children go? There are lots of organizations that promise to help us bring in members by the droves, for a fee, but their solutions rarely work. In large part because they are one size fits all and don't consider context or the people already there. In this week's posting Martin Marty reflects on a new book by Kenneth Woodward, the long time religion editor for Newsweek, titled Getting Religion. Marty says this isn't a review, because he's too close to the author and the book, but he wants us to join him in considering the state of things as Woodward lays them out.  I think I'll have to get a copy of the book! In the meantime, take a read and offer your thoughts!

Getting Religion
By MARTIN E. MARTY   September 19, 2016
“Getting Religion” is a concept born of H. L. Mencken’s observation that in the free market of American religion, citizens “get religion” when they convert or get steamed up. They do so in different ways and with different degrees of fever. Kenneth L. Woodward has taken the temperature regularly since the mid-Sixties (when he and I got acquainted and started following parallel but different paths, he in journalism and I as historian—and moonlighting in religious journalism). He was religion editor at Newsweek for over 40 years, where he could chronicle and interpret the dazzling, complex four decades of America and its people “getting religion.”
Last week he published a summing-up on “Faith, Culture, and Politics” in that period. Vatican II; religious revivals; civil rights; Vietnam War protests; “movement religion,” including women’s movements—these are a few of the catalytic and capstone clusterings of events here. I had read the manuscript, and this week reread what became a 447-page hardbound book. This is not a review; I am too close to the author and too involved in the times to gain objectivity and perspective. But I can advise readers that nowhere else are they likely to find a more informed, impassioned story of how Americans in these years “got” and kept—or abandoned—religion.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Reversal of Fortune - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 19C

Luke 16:19-31 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

                Back in 1983 Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy starred in a movie titled Trading Places. It’s been a few years, but maybe you remember the movie in which a snobbish rich man played by Dan Aykroyd gets switched with a street con artist played Eddie Murphy. They find themselves in the other’s shoes, trying to make sense of their differing situations. This proves especially difficult for Aykroyd’s character because he’s not used to having to deal with life on the streets. While his previous life had been relatively easy, now it was much more difficult!  While the plotline for Trading Places doesn’t exactly parallel that of Lazarus and the Rich Man, there is in this parable a reversal of fortunes. In a real way they traded places.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Names for the Messiah (Walter Brueggemann) -- Review

NAMES FOR THE MESSIAH: An Advent Study. By Walter Brueggemann. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016. Ix + 86 pages.

                Advent is a season of anticipation. In our consumer-oriented culture, there’s little room for anticipation. We like instant gratification. Still, Advent is a season of anticipation, and what better way to spend it than in the company of Walter Brueggemann, the now retired professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Brueggemann knows the Bible and he is a master at connecting it to our day. Since Advent is a brief season of the church year—just four weeks—there is need for a brief yet deep book for study, and such is the case here.  In four brief chapters, Brueggemann helps us reflect on the meaning of four titles or names given to the Messiah by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 9:6).

                In this one verse from Isaiah can be found four names that in the course of church history have been applied to Jesus:  Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This passage gets voiced in Handel's Messiah and is read at many a Christmas Eve service. It is often taken as prophetic (predictive), but as Brueggemann reminds us, this verse has an original context that needs to be understood if the titles are to be appropriately applied to Jesus.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Choose Wisely -- A Stewardship Sermon

Luke 16:1-13

What do you think about the manager’s behavior in this parable we just heard? Do you think the manager would be a good model for Christian behavior? It is true that the Prodigal Son was forgiven for squandering his father’s estate, but what about this squanderer? Do you think he deserves forgiveness?  

This is a most unusual parable, which most scholars can’t seem to crack. Every time you read it, you’re left wondering why Jesus told a story like this! But Luke seemed to think that it merited inclusion in his Gospel. So, it must have something to say to us. But, is it the right passage to be used in a stewardship sermon? The answer to that is simple – the people at the Center for Faith and Giving, including Ron Allen, thought it would be a perfect stewardship text. 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Clergy for a New Drug Policy - Sightings (Martin Marty)

The War on Drugs apparently is our longest running American war, and it doesn't appear that the anti-drug side is winning. This war was declared back when I was in Junior High, so that's a bit of time passing. As the war "escalated" our prisons have expanded exponentially. So, maybe it's time to reconsider our efforts. That is the feeling among a growing number of clergy who work with those caught in this war. Like Martin Marty, I have no expertise in such matters, but maybe it's time to do some creative thinking. In this article Marty introduces us to at least some of that creative thinking so the war on drugs doesn't rival the 100 Years War!

Clergy for a New Drug Policy
By MARTIN E. MARTY   September 12, 2016
U.S. Marshals fingerprinting prisoner | Source: United States Marshals Service
When was the last time any of us read of a war being over? The War in Afghanistan? The Culture War(s)? The War on Poverty? For all we know, factions may still be seething over issues, such as they were, in the Thirty Years’ War or (we’ll raise you 70) the Hundred Years’ War. So it is startling to read, as we do now with some frequency, that the “War on Drugs” is over. Look out the window at the overcrowded prisons housing addicts and drug dealers, penal colonies which grow every year, and it’s hard to believe that the “war” is over. This is so especially because in many jurisdictions law-enforcement powers keep arresting and confining ever more addicts with no alternative.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Good Christian Sex (Bromleigh McCleneghan) - A Review

GOOD CHRISTIAN SEX: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option—And other Things the Bible Says about Sex. By Bromleigh McCleneghan. San Francisco: Harper One, 2016. 240 pages.

                Most Christians that I know get uncomfortable when it comes to talking about sex. Yes, sex has become a political football in Christian circles, with debates about abstinence, abortion, same-sex relationships, and contraception often on the table. It’s a live issue in the political realm, but at least in most Mainline Protestant Churches there is rarely a serious conversation about sex. It is as if St. Augustine still patrols the halls, with his discomfort with sex and the related conversation about pleasure. While the church hems and haws, the culture around us has been changing, sometimes radically, since I was a child. I lived through the 1960s, which was the age of sexual liberation, but I came of age in the mid-1970s, when at least in the Christian circles I inhabited, we lived as if little had changed.

                Much has changed in the past half century, and the old taboos about premarital sex have largely fallen away. With the rise of contraception, sex has been separated in large part from procreation. So pleasure has become a primary focus. Even in many Christian circles that teach that sex should be contained within marriage, pleasure has replaced procreation as the primary focus. At the same time, growing numbers of Christians, especially younger Christians, have begun to question this older ethic and demand a new ethic, one that doesn’t assume that chastity is the only option. One of those Christians who have questioned the traditional line is Bromleigh McCleneghan, the author of Good Christian Sex. McCleneghan is a graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School. While ordained a United Methodist minister, she serves as Associate Pastor at Union Church of Hinsdale, Illinois (United Church of Christ). She is also the daughter of a United Methodist pastor, and so she grew up in the church, but in a context that gave more room when it came to sexual matters than I might have been given in my context (and I’m probably of a similar age to her parents).  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Shrewd Faith? -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C

Luke 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 
10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,[d] who will entrust to you the true riches?12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”


                I don’t know about you, but I find this particular parable a bit baffling. Of course, if you find it baffling, you’re in good company. That seems to be the scholarly consensus. The comment on this parable in the Jewish Annotated New Testament is a good example: “The parable defies any fully satisfactory explanation” (p. 134). The parable appears in a section of Luke’s Gospel that speaks of proper use of money, with the next parable in line being that of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). In this parable a rich man fires his manager because the manager had squandered the master’s property. What happens next isn’t all that surprising, but the use Jesus makes of it is rather interesting.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Why Patriotism?

Yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. I posted my sermon from the Sunday following, and you'll find other pieces I wrote, spoke, and preached in the aftermath of that day that has marked our existence since that time.  September 11 has been designated Patriot Day along with being the National Day of Service and Remembrance. On this day after Patriot Day, I feel inclined to reflect on what it means to me to be patriotic. 

At times I feel ambivalent about patriotism. In part that is because too often we overly mix religion and national identity. Or more specifically, many Christians equate Christianity and American identity. The church is much larger than this nation. That's why I speak of the Lord's Prayer being the Christian pledge of allegiance in my book Ultimate Allegiance: The Subversive Nature of the Lord's Prayer. My allegiance to God stands above my allegiance to nation, but that doesn't mean I don't love and appreciate the nation in which I live. I am an American. I was born here and I've lived here all my life. To be patriotic doesn't mean one has to dismiss the value of other nations. God is the God of all peoples, and so God is present elsewhere. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What Amazing Grace! - A Sermon for 9-11 (revisited)

It is the fifteenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. As with other formative events anniversaries invite us to remember and try to make sense of what happened on that day in history. Such remembrances also invite us to reflect on what has transpired in the intervening years. I knew then that nothing would be the same again, but I couldn't imagine at that moment that we would enter into a myriad of wars and conflicts and that fear would reign. On the Sunday following, I preached a sermon on grace and addressed our feelings at the moment. I wanted to appeal to our better angels, but I'm not sure everyone was ready to sing Amazing Grace. I think many would have preferred the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  In any case, below is the sermon I preached on September 16, 2001. I share the sermon as a remembrance (and because I'm not preaching today). Note, however, that these are lectionary texts for today. 


1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

On the morning of April 19, 1995, at about 9:00 a.m., I turned on the TV, as I often did before heading for Pasadena to teach my church history class at Fuller Seminary.  As the TV came on, I watched in horror and grief the scene at the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  There on the screen, I could see people staggering out of a building in ruin.  As I continued to watch, I saw people being carried out, some alive, and some dead.   No one knew, at that point, quite what had happened.
Was it an accident?  Was it a bomb?  If it was a terrorist act, could it happen here?  I mean, I live in Southern California, but Oklahoma City; you don't expect something like that in the Midwest. Though I lived far away, I was immediately drawn to the scene.  I wept with those who were weeping; I was angry with those who were angry; I hurt with those who were hurting.   

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Unified We Are a Force (Joerg Rieger & Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger) - A Review

                Many years ago Reinhold Niebuhr was a pastor of a Christian congregation in Detroit, Michigan. He was known to complain that his fellow clergy were hesitant to invite labor leaders to address their congregations. In large part that was due to the fact that industry leaders often sat on the boards of those congregations. You don’t want to bite that hand that feeds you.  But:
If religion is to contribute anything to the solution of the industrial problem, a more heroic type of religion than flourishes in the average church must be set to the task. I don’t believe that the men who are driven by that kind of religion need to dissociate themselves from the churches, but they must bind themselves together in more effective association than they now possess. [Niebuhr, Reinhold. Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic (Kindle Locations 898-901). Read Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.]
Things are different today than in the 1920s, when Niebuhr was serving a Detroit congregation and challenging is colleagues to stand with labor, and yet maybe not.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Introduction to World Christian History (Derek Cooper) -- A Review

INTRODUCTION TO WORLD CHRISTIAN HISTORY.  By Derek Cooper. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. 254 pages.

                There is a tendency to speak of Christianity as being a "Western" religion, by which most people mean that it is a European-centered religion. The fact is, Christianity, like Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and a number of other major religions, is in fact an Asian-born religion. Its roots are in West Asia and from there it spread south, east, west, and yes, north over the past two millennia.  Telling the story of Christianity is not easy for it is a diverse religion, that has been formed by both its origins and its expanding contexts. It has ebbed and flowed through time, so that what was originally a West Asian religion came to dominate Europe and North America and now is in the process of finding its strength in the Global South. In part due to conflicts in the Middle East many have rediscovered the Christian communities that have existed through the centuries in places like Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey. Christianity may have become a minority religion in its homeland, but it has yet to disappear (though due to migration patterns Christianity is disappearing in that place we call “The Holy Land.”

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

No Longer Lost - Let's Celebrate! - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17C

Luke 15:1-10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 
So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10 Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


                The lectionary reading from Luke 15 offers up two of Jesus’ best known parables. They serve to answer Jesus’ critics who have taken to heart the adage “birds of a feather flock together.”  Growing up many of us were told by our parents to be careful about who we chose to hang out with. Choose wrongly and you might get tagged as an incorrigible or worse. It’s clear that Jesus is hanging out with the wrong kind of people. Indeed, he’s been caught welcoming sinners. Worse, he’s eating with them.

Monday, September 05, 2016

The Importance of Work: A Theological Reflection

Market Basket Store, Klamath Falls, later Sentry Market
(my first regular job during high school)
Today is Labor Day. For many today is a day to rest from one's labors. For others it is a day for sales, and thus some will will work. As we head into a fall season that will feature an election that will allow Americans to decide who should lead the nation for the next four years, the economy, and therefore jobs, are a topic of conversation. Unfortunately much of the conversation fails to recognize the changing realities of our times. Many jobs lost in the past decades will never return. It's not just because they were sent overseas or to Mexico, but because of automation. I grew up in a community that was defined by the lumber industry. In the 1960s and early 1970s my hometown was in Southern Oregon was a happening place. It's been a decade since last I visited Klamath Falls, but things have changed a lot. The lumber mills and the Air Force base that employed several thousand individuals with good paying jobs are gone. The mills have left in part because of environmental concerns, but also because many of these companies moved their mills to the south where right to work laws and anti-union sentiment made for lower wages and higher profits. Essentially all the mills are gone, and the city is a shadow of what was once there. Those jobs won't come back, and my home town will never again be what it was. That saddens me, but it is true. 

In my sermon yesterday and in a litany we shared, we lifted up the value of work and labor. In my sermon I noted that throughout Scripture God is portrayed as one who labors. Jesus is described as having come from a working class family. He was, according to Mark 6:3, a carpenter, and the people of his hometown didn't think much of him.  But the good news in all of this is that the one who reveals God's presence to the world through the incarnation (Jn 1:14) is one who works, and therefore all who work (and almost all of us work in some fashion, are incorporated into his life. His work makes our work sacred. 

Unfortunately we don't pay much attention to this topic in the church. As Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger point out, in the world of religion, religion is something that takes place in leisure time, taking place when we're not at work:

Those who attend worship services are not only off work but are often trying to forget about work. It should not surprise us that much of religion is more interested in what happens in the bedroom than what goes on in the boardroom and that it seems even less interested in other places where people work. Sometimes religion assumes that its task is to regenerate people on their days off work for whatever it is they need to do back at work, but even in this case there is little concern for what really happens at work let alone for transforming what happens at work. What if religion is not primarily about what happens in another dimension but about what difference the divine and people of faith are making in this world, including what happens at work? [Unified We Are a Force, p. 10]
What do we have to say about work? How does what happens in worship connect with what happens at work? How does our faith in God give meaning to what we do with our labor? I am employed by the church. That's my job. In that sense I should have solidarity with those who work in other ways and in other places. That is the point I think that the Riegers trying to make. We who are followers of Jesus. Indeed, they make it clear that all who participate in the Abrahamic religions can look to Moses, to Jesus, and Muhammad, among others, for examples of one's who exemplified work in their own lives.  

With that, let me wish all who work, a blessed Labor Day!

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made A Sermon for Pentecost 16C

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Over the summer we visited the Psalms on several occasions. We heard in poetic fashion the call to pursue a life of faith with vigor and diligence. We heard messages of judgment and hope. This morning, even as we look forward to a busy fall, we return one more time to the Psalms. The word we’ve heard this morning is a most edifying one. It is a call to praise God “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

These are powerful words that remind us that God is not only the creator of the universe, but God formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb. Therefore, our lives matter to God. This reminder that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” isn’t an expression of the “power of positive thinking.” It is an expression of God’s declaration that all human life is sacred to God. That declaration is affirmed in the person of Jesus, who according to John’s prologue, is “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Therefore, as David Gushee writes, because the Word became flesh, “no human life can be seen as worthless” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 157). This is a good word to hear as we enter the fall, especially with all the political rancor we are experiencing. While all lives do matter, it is important that we name those lives that too often are pushed to the margins.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Religion and Labor's Long-time Relationship

It is Labor Day Weekend. Many will use this weekend for one last fling before fall sets in. As we do so we may miss the connection between the three-day weekend and labor. Perhaps that is due in part to the decline of labor unions in America. I must admit I've never been a member of a union. In high school I worked in a grocery store that was unionized, but since I worked only a few hours a week I wasn't required to join. That said, it is good to remember and honor all those who labor. Indeed, most of us have or are or wish to work. I am employed as a pastor. That is my calling, but it is also my job. 

I will be making note of the importance of work and labor in my sermon on Sunday. We will share in a litany during worship that will lift up all those who labor, in all of the forms it takes. It is perhaps providential that I am reading at this moment a book that explores the relationship of religion and labor. The book is titled Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America's Inequalities, (Chalice Press, 2016). It is authored by Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger. Joerg is a theology professor and Rosemarie, his spouse, is a labor organizer. That's a good combination to author a book like this!

I want to share a paragraph from the book that I think should be helpful. It deals with the deep roots that link religion and labor. They write:
Contrary to what mainline religion wants us to believe, the close relationship between labor and religion is not a new idea.  In the creation stories, God works and rests, Moses is involved in labor issues, and so are Jesus and Muhammad. Slightly over a century ago, many of the churches in the United States had the good sense to support the concerns of working people. Ending child labor, instituting the eight-hour workday and the weekend, and fighting for the respect for women at work were causes supported by many people of faith. [Unified We Are A Force, p. 93].
One thing that the Riegers emphasize is that there is a need for a deep solidarity with those who labor. They call for us to move beyond charity and even advocacy to standing in the gap, recognizing that we all work (or have worked). Unfortunately the church has not done a very good job of understanding the importance of work in the lives of our people. This weekend can be a call to reconnect the two. After all, God is one who works and rests! 

Friday, September 02, 2016

Anthems, Pledges, and the Realm of God

Over the years I've been a 49ers fan. They've won a few Super Bowls, but right now they're at the bottom of the pile in the NFL. Since they're not doing well, and the local Detroit Lions need support I've focused my attention on Matt Stafford and company. In recent days the 49ers have been in the news, or more specifically their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, has been in the news. The question of the day isn't about football and whether Kaepernick will be the starting QB, but his decision to sit during the National Anthem. It's pro-forma to start athletic contests with the National Anthem. Sometimes it's done well, but often it's done poorly. I'm not a real fan of the Star Spangled Banner, in large part because it's not an easy song to sing well. The folks to the north in Canada have a much more singable anthem, but that's a different story.

Whether you agree with Kaepernick's action or not, the conversation it has engendered is at times disturbing. First of all, we all have the right to speak about we believe and value. That's an American value. Kaepernick is expressing his opinion as an African American man about the way people of color are treated in this country. He has both the right and unfortunately the facts behind him. So, he has chosen to protest by sitting during the Anthem. That's his right. So why not let him be? Why not explore the root causes of his complaint?  

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Moral Injury -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Moral Injury is a new concept, one that I've yet to really explore. It has to do with the affects and after-affects of service in time of war. I'm not a veteran. I've never experienced battle. I've ministered to and with those who have experienced war, and my father served World War II in the Navy. I'm not a pacifist, but I do seek to be involved in peace-making. But what is "moral injury" and how should we in the church respond? Martin Marty lifts up this question in this week's edition of Sightings. He points us toward helpful resources, resources I know I need to consult. I invite you to read and respond to Marty's invitation to explore so that we might be more compassionate and supportive of those who serve or have served in time of war. Since we have been in wars of some sort for the past decade or more, it is a question to be addressed.

Moral Injury 
By MARTIN E. MARTY   August 29, 2016
Editor's note: Sightings will be taking a break in observance of Labor Day. We will return with twice-weekly columns beginning Thursday, September 8th.

“Moral injury” is a recently diagnosed but agelessly known assault on the soul. While it cannot be isolated and defined as (relatively) precisely as PTSD, or Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, it has received much attention in the past decade. The unending wars of our years, the polarizations in society, and the uncertainty about reemploying religious categories in a wildly pluralist society have worked to press something like “moral injury” on our minds, consciences, and communications media as seldom before.