Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Good News of God’s Favor - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 3B (Isaiah 61).

61 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

8 For I the Lord love justice,
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
    and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
    that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

                We have arrived at the Third Sunday of Advent. This brief and often neglected season has reached its midpoint. Soon, we will gather to celebrate the birth of the one Christians call the Christ, the one who incarnates God to the world. The reading from Isaiah 61 will likely resonate with followers of Jesus, who hear in it Jesus’ own sense of calling. It was early in his ministry, after baptism and temptation, that Jesus returned home to Nazareth and took an opportunity to preach in the synagogue. Having read this very passage, Jesus applied it to himself. Although the hometown folks did not respond well to his proclamation of himself as fulfillment of the word of Isaiah, we who are Christians have looked to it to understand Jesus’ own sense of call (Luke 4:16-30).

Monday, December 11, 2017

Awaiting the King (James K. A. Smith) -- A Review

AWAITING THE KING: Reforming Public Theology. (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3). By James K. A. Smith.  Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. Xvii + 233 pages.

                Preachers are cautioned to steer clear of politics. Not only is there the issue of tax exempt status, but going political can cause dissension in the congregation. Stick to religion and stay out of politics. The only problem with this advice is that the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about the intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to talk about alternative kingdoms and kings not on their payroll. So, Pilate had Jesus executed. Then there are the prophets of Israel, who often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. Politics and religion have long been connected for as long as there has been human history, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the book under review, James K. A. Smith’s Awaiting the King, the third volume of his Cultural Liturgies project. It is, as the subtitle claims, an attempt to reform public theology (by public he means more than simply the state, though he does include the state within those parameters).

I approached this book with a degree of eagerness. For one thing, I am very interested in public theology (having written a book titled Faith in the Public Square and having been actively engaged in public life as a pastor). Although I hadn't read the first two volumes in this series, I did read his book You Are What You Love, which is a more popular version of the earlier volumes. The point of that book, which I read and enjoyed, was this—we are what we worship. That is, liturgies help form us, whether they're Christian or secular (thus the liturgies of the mall or sports have an important formational effect on us.) Now that I’ve finished reading Awaiting the King, I’m ambivalent about its message. This may have to do with differing spiritual/theological inclinations on my part. I'm not evangelical in the current sense of the word, nor am I Reformed in the way that Smith is? In other words, I lean more toward Reinhold Niebuhr than to Abraham Kuyper. And for those who do not know James K. A. Smith, he is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, holding the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, and a confessed admirer of the Dutch politician/theology Abraham Kuyper. He is also a fellow of Cardus, a Canadian Christian think tank apparently interested in changing Canada’s “social architecture.”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Divine Patience - A Sermon for Advent 2B

2 Peter 3:8-15

If you’ve been out Christmas shopping, you may have found yourself standing in long lines. The same might be true at the Post Office. When it comes to calling customer service or tech support, time may slow down to a crawl. The occasional reminder that a representative will answer as soon as possible doesn’t make the wait any easier. So, what should you do while you wait? How do you keep yourself occupied, when half an hour seems like a day? Having a smart phone may prove helpful, at least while waiting in a line at the store or the post office. At least I can check Facebook and Twitter, and if the line is too long, I can open a book on my Kindle app.  But, what if you’re waiting for God to act?  

This season of Advent is by definition a season of waiting. We pray “O come, o come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Each year we sing these words of expectation, while waiting for Emmanuel to be fully revealed to us, not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, but as the returning king. We sing: “Desire of nations bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and “bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease.” Today, on Peace Sunday, we offer this prayer, longing for the time when the world will be filled with “heaven’s peace.”

Saturday, December 09, 2017

What is "Essential Kenosis"?

How should we understand how God interacts with creation? Is God all powerful, and therefore able to do anything God desires? Are there limitations, even if self-generated limitations? In other words, does Gods' character define how God engages creation? In the view of Thomas Jay Oord, any conversation about the actions of God must be understood in the context of God's "uncontrolling love." Tom explores this concept in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015). He then invited a number of people including scholars and pastors and lay persons to respond. Those responses appear in the book Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord, (SacraSage Press, 2017). [Note: the cost of the paperback has been lowered from 24.95 to 11:95 on Amazon until Christmas Eve]. I contributed one of the essays to that book.  Now, as part of an effort to broaden the conversation about the "uncontrolling love of God," Tom, who is a theologian teaching at Northwest Nazarene University, has produced a brief video describing what he calls "essential kenosis." I'd like to invite you to view it, reflect on it, and hopefully respond here with your thoughts. Is this an understanding of God's nature and God's relationship to creation that makes sense? How does this understanding of God who is love invite us to participate in the work of God and empower us for that work? 

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Disciples Ecclesiology -- Part Two: Marks of the Church

            The New Testament uses several images to describe the church. One of the most compelling is Paul’s description of the church as the “body of Christ.” Other important descriptors include vine and branches, bride, and family. Regarding the body of Christ, Paul reminds us that there is but one body, with many members, each with its own purpose/gift (1 Cor. 12). As Alexander Campbell, remarked in the Millennial Harbinger, “all Christian communities to stand to each other as individual members in the human body stand to each other in giving or receiving pleasure or pain, . . . honor or dishonor” [Royal Humbert, Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 160].

While biblical images have important power in illuminating our understanding of the church, historically the church/churches have affirmed four marks of a true church. Four markers that are named in the historic creeds that one should look for in determining whether a church stands in line with the historic traditions. While the Disciples are historically a non-creedal tradition, it is worth spending some time considering these four marks, which according to the Nicene Creed, perhaps the most authoritative of the historic ecumenical creeds, affirm the existence of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Exploring each of these statements in brief can help us consider who we are as church.  

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

A Disciples Ecclesiology: The Nature of the Church

Pulpit in Cane Ridge Meeting House
Note: This post is a continuation of my Disciples Theology series. This will be the first of two on ecclesiology.  

            Ecclesiology plays a significant role in Disciples theology. Our divisions as a tradition have often been rooted in differences in understanding about how close contemporary churches should come to the earliest forms of church. There has been a tendency in at least parts of our tradition to read the Book of Acts as providing a blue print that must be restored if the church is to be truly Christian. In the next few reflections I’d like us to think more deeply about what it means to be church. Standing at the heart of this conversation is the question of whether the church is simply a human institution or more than simply a human institution? Is polity, the way we organize ourselves a matter of indifference, or is there something inherently spiritual to the way we organize ourselves? Another element inherent in the conversation is whether the church can be separated from the institutions that embody it. That is, the church as an institution increasingly irrelevant to the life of the Christian, or is the community (with all its institutions) a space where the Holy Spirit is at work? 

            If we’re going to explore the nature of church, it might help to define some terms, including the most common Greek word used the New Testament in reference to the church. That word is ekklesia, which at its simplest means "called out ones."  In the Septuagint ekklesia is used to translate the Hebrew words edhah and qahal, both of which refer to an assembly of people, especially an "assembly of the Lord." In the New Testament, it typically refers to congregations of Christians gathered in particular places for worship (1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19), or prayer and instruction (Acts 11:26; 12:5; 1 Cor. 14:4-5, 28, 34-35). However, at times the word is used in reference to larger groups of Christians, such as the church in a city—for example, the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1). In the plural it is used for churches in a province such as the church of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) or Judea (Gal 1:22).  It is even used to speak of Christians living in a wider region such as such as Asia (1 Cor. 16:19; Rev. 1:4, 11). Even more broadly it can speak of the "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16).

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Glory of God Revealed - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Isaiah 40)

Isaiah 40:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
    lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
    he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
    and gently lead the mother sheep.


                Second Isaiah speaks words of comfort to Israel, promising that its time of exile is coming to an end. Israel served its term and the penalty has been paid. This is, the prophet declares, a day of new beginnings. So, it is time then to prepare away in the wilderness for the glory of God to come and be revealed.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Fearless Dialogues (Gregory C. Ellison II) -- A Review

FEARLESS DIALOGUES:  A New Movement for Justice. By Gregory C. Ellison II. Foreword by Parker J. Palmer.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xiii + 170 pages.

                We live in a polarized age, where productive and transformative conversation rarely occurs. We seem more at home talking within our silos. We may feel better about ourselves being on the correct side of the issue, but we nothing really changes. In part this lack of conversation is due to a fear of the other, including the stranger. We have, apparently, learned too well the warning of our parents, that we should not talk to strangers. But change and transformation, will require a willingness to sit down with the stranger and with the person with whom we do not share common perspectives. It will require an ability to listen, and pay attention to people who get lost in the crowd, allowing them to speak for themselves. To get there, we need wise guidance and a process that will remove boundaries and move toward justice in the land. Such a process is available to us in the form of “Fearless Dialogues,” a program developed by Gregory Ellison, the author of this particular book, which introduces us to this process, by which we can extend radical hospitality in transformative ways.

                The author of this book, Gregory Ellison, is professor of pastoral care and counseling at Candler School of Theology. Writing from both his professional foundations and from personal experience, he introduces us to "Fearless Dialogues," a program/methodology that he developed after watching and participating in conversations that ended in frustration, and the participants no better off. This program is, according to Ellison, a "grassroots nonprofit initiative committed to creating unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and other" (p. 6). The key is overcoming fear through "lessness." That is, through a "posture of humility, perceptiveness, and intention not to lord power over others." (p. 7). There are three pillars to this process: see, hear, and change. With these pillars comes the recognition that "purposeful engagement and sustained change are not possible while community partners remain unseen and unheard" (p. 12). This point is important to understanding Ellison’s rationale for the program and to its success. Throughout the book, Ellison speaks to the need for unheard voices to be heard. He tells personal stories about what it feels like to be ignored or have one’s ideas not taken seriously, even though another might be lauded for sharing the same ideas. We all know that there are persons ready and willing to engage in conversation and who then dominate the conversation. Look at any group event. Who is doing most of the talking? Who is silent? Are there people who want to enter in, but who can’t get any one to notice them? This process is designed to overcome that problem so that more voices can be heard, and change becomes possible.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Out of Adventism (Jerry Gladson) -- A Review

OUT OF ADVENTISM: A Theologian’s Journey. By Jerry Gladson. Foreword by Edwin Zachrison. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2017. Xx + 306 pages.

People’s experiences of religion are not monolithic. For some participation in a religious community can be very positive and life affirming. They can also be destructive spiritually, emotionally, and physically. For some a particular community can be supportive, while that same community can be spiritually abusive to others. In other words, we need to take seriously the testimony of those who have been abused, while recognizing that not everyone in a particular community has had the same experience.

This book is the testimony, the story, of a person who was deeply involved in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Jerry Gladson was a theological educator, an Old Testament scholar and theologian, who taught at one of the Adventist’s colleges. He was an ordained minister as well. At one point, early in his career, he was a rising star, but in time he ran afoul of the leadership, some of whom he had counted as friends, and of the church’s theology. After several decades of service, Gladson was forced out of the church, but not before his own family suffered from exclusion and abuse. Among the casualties was his marriage and the faith of his children. Why did he run afoul of the church’s leadership? In part it had to do with structures that sought to control the lives of its people to such an extent that freedom to think and challenge authority was not allowed. The boundaries in which one could live were narrowly defined. When you colored outside the lines, you became a problem to either be corrected or evicted. When Gladson proved not to be correctable, he was evicted. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Restore Us O God! a Reflection on Psalm 80

Psalm 80 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
To the leader: on Lilies, a Covenant. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
Lord God of hosts,
    how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
    and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
    our enemies laugh among themselves.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
    and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
    so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
    and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
    look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15     the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Disciples of Christ and the Nature of Salvation

 With this essay, I am picking up my ongoing exploration of Disciples of Christ theology (knowing that Disciples have struggled with the entire idea of doing theology). With this post I explore in brief the concept of salvation, a posting that picks up from the previous conversations on sin.  


               The Disciples of Christ identity statement defines the Disciples as a “movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” This identity statement is understood to be a reframing of the Disciple commitment to Christian unity to envision a broader commitment to engaging in ministries that bring healing and wholeness to the world. Without naming sin as a problem, this statement embraces both the reality of sin (brokenness) and the call to be witnesses to God’s gracious provision of salvation in Christ, a provision we celebrate at the Lord’s Table. This vision is missional in intent, and connects the call to the table with Peter’s invitation to repentance and baptism as expressed in Acts 2:38, a passage that has deep roots in Disciples experience. The message is simple, if one wishes to be saved, then one is called to repent, be baptized, so as to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

                If the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world, and if this identity statement is an expression of God’s provision of salvation, what might this look like? I’d like to explore three biblical images that might help us better define what salvation might entail: new creation, restoration, and healing. this might mean for us.

Remember Your People - A Lectionary Reflection for Advent 1B (Isaiah 64)

Isaiah 64:1-9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

64 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
    so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
 as when fire kindles brushwood
    and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
    so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
    you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
    no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
    who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
    those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
    because you hid yourself we transgressed.    
We have all become like one who is unclean,
    and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
    and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
    or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
    and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
    we are the clay, and you are our potter;
    we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
    and do not remember iniquity forever.
    Now consider, we are all your people.

                “O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” With these words we begin the season of Advent, a season that is easily subsumed in the rush to Christmas. If we’re honest, even the most liturgically pure among us find it difficult to resist the lure of the upcoming season. But there is a message here that shouldn’t get lost in the rush. We may have to be alert to it, but it is there. Yes, it is thee in the words of Isaiah, who always seems to have a word to say during this Advent season.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Church in Ordinary Time (Amy Plantinga Pauw) - A Review

CHURCH IN ORDINARY TIME: A Wisdom Ecclesiology. By Amy Plantinga Pauw. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Ix + 188 pages.

I've never liked the liturgical designation ordinary time, preferring to speak of Epiphany and Pentecost as extended seasons. I’ve not even bothered to learn the numbering system, preferring to refer to the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost (excepting Trinity Sunday) as further expressions of those two days. Epiphany marks the earthly presence of Jesus and Pentecost the outworking of the Spirit’s presence in the church. I’m not sure I’m ready to abandon my current practice, but Amy Plantinga Paw has given new meaning to the designation “ordinary time.” She does this in the context of working out what she calls a wisdom ecclesiology. In this book "an ordinary-time ecclesiology emphasizes that the church lives in the gap between the resurrection of Jesus and the last things as God's creature." (p. 1). That would mean that we currently live in "ordinary time," no matter the liturgical season that is being observed at this moment.

I wanted to read this book for two reasons. First, my own scholarly interests focus on ecclesiology. That's what I wrote on in my doctoral dissertation in historical theology (18th century high church Anglican ecclesiology). The other reason is that the author of this book was a M.Div. classmate at Fuller Seminary back in the mid-1980s. So, I set about to read the book that explored an area of great interest to me. I will admit that it took longer to read than I expected. It's not a long book—just 164 pages of text. It’s also thoroughly readable. Pauw is a good writer. But there is a certain theological density present in the book that requires close reading. Thinking about the church in conversation with Wisdom theology (and the Bible’s Wisdom literature) is something different. Instead of thinking in terms of the church’s divine nature, that is, our existence as Christ’s ongoing body, Pauw invites us to consider more clearly the creaturely nature of the church. This is something of a paradigm shift in ecclesial thought. Thus, it requires more reflection.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Judgment Day - a Sermon for Reign of Christ Sunday (Year A)

Matthew 25:31-46

We’ve  all faced a judgment day or two. It might be a call to the principal’s office or maybe the boss’ office. Whomever it was who called you in, you knew that it wouldn’t be good news. The day I got called into the President’s office at the college where I was teaching, I knew something was wrong. After all it was June, and school was out for the summer! 
Here in Matthew 25 we encounter an apocalyptic vision of humanity’s judgment day. The Son of Man comes in glory and gathers the nations, separating the sheep from the goats. This scene has its roots in the visions of Daniel and Ezekiel. Jesus picks up on these visions to point us toward the day of judgment, when the reign of Christ will be fully established, and things will be set right.  

Today is the last day of a church year that began with the promise of Advent and continued on through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, and then into the days of Pentecost. This last, lengthy season ends by looking forward to the day on which Jesus will finally reign in glory. In this reading from the Gospel of Matthew, that event is marked by a day of judgment. I realize that the Christmas shopping season has already begun, but as a church we need to first finish the race, before we start the next cycle.  

Thursday, November 23, 2017

All Good Gifts -- A Thanksgiving Blessing

It is Thanksgiving Day, and while there is much brokenness in the world today, there is also great abundance. Thus, it is appropriate to stop and give thanks. This past week, I have been blessed to share an early Thanksgiving meal with my friends at the Turkish American Society of Michigan. I give thanks for their hospitality and welcome! I got experience once again the gathering of the Troy-area Interfaith Group on Sunday evening, in our annual Thanksgiving Celebration. This community, in which I live is truly diverse, and that was expressed well in this celebration. Then, on Tuesday evening, there was a distinctly Christian gathering for a Thanksgiving Worship Service sponsored by the Troy Clergy Group. Now that the Day of Thanksgiving has arrived, I wish to share one of my favorite Thanksgiving songs: "All Good Gifts," from Godspell.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Introverts in Worship

As a pastor who is by nature an introvert, I found this piece by my seminary friend and now a professor at Fuller Seminary's School of Psychology very interesting.  Dr. Cameron Lee is Professor of Family Ministries at Fuller Theological Seminary. He blogs regularly under the title Squinting through Fog.   

Sometimes worship seems fit for extroverts. Indeed, we seem to prize extroverts as preachers. Such a person is not me, though like Cameron I have figured out how to be extroverted professionally. But, like Cameron I need to get away from the crowd afterwards. I invite you to read and reflect -- You will need to click through to read the entire piece.  But come back and offer thoughts!!


In some ways, I’m a pretty public person, as a teacher with a writing and speaking ministry. But I’m also an introvert by nature. A fairly strong one, in fact. I’ve learned to adapt to the demands of my role, the vague (and sometimes not so vague) expectation that I should be more extraverted and outgoing (and yes, I spell “extravert” with an “a”). At the end of the day, however, when I’m done being public, I need time alone to recover the energy I’ve expended.

That’s typically how it is with introverts. And it’s perfectly normal.

Maybe that sounds defensive. I don’t mean it to be. But introverts appear to be in the minority (and typically don’t draw too much attention to themselves anyway). Extraversion is often the expected norm. Someone who doesn’t readily volunteer his or her thoughts and opinions may be labeled “shy,” leaving others to wonder how that poor soul came to be that way.

And sometimes, extraverted norms play out in the church, too, even in the context of worship.

A believer may encounter culture shock moving from one church to another. If you were raised in an emotionally buttoned-up liturgical tradition and a friend invites you to a more charismatic church, you might suffer a kind of worship whiplash. But make no mistake: there are extraverts in high-church congregations and introverts in Pentecostal ones. The question is whether the spoken and unspoken norms of those congregations leave some worshipers feeling like there’s something wrong with them

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Flock Restored -- Lectionary Reflection for Reign of Christ Sunday (Ezekiel 34)

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24   New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12 As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. 

20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. 

23 I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.

                It is Christ the King Sunday (or Reign of Christ Sunday). The long season of Pentecost/Ordinary Time has come to an end, and before long we will restart the cycle with a season of longing for the coming reign of Christ. We will continue this cycling through seasons until that time when the realm of God comes in its fulness. For now, we experience that interregnum when signs of the realm are present but not fully present. We live in hope, even as we seek to live out the values of the realm. If the churches calendar begins with a season of longing, when, as Amy Plantinga Pauw suggests, “church longs for what lies beyond earthly life and beyond history, for the day when ‘mourning and crying and pain shall be no more’ (Rev. 21:4). But that does not translate into indifference to earthly flourishing here and now” [Pauw, Church in Ordinary Time, p. 121]. On this day, which brings to a close the cycle, we stand before the shepherd, and reflect upon what has transpired in the here and now. How have we lived in the interim? How might the shepherd view our lives?

The gospel reading for the day is the parable of the sheep and goats, who are judged by the king based on how they treat the least of the king’s family members (Mt. 25:31-46). That parable draws imagery from this prophetic word in the book Ezekiel, in which the prophet offers a word of hope to a people living in exile. The land is occupied by a foreign power. The beloved Temple is destroyed. The monarchy has ceased to exist, and the leading citizens of the nation have been transported to a foreign land. The people feel lost and alone, and the prophet offers hope that God, the shepherd of Israel, will seek out the lost and restore them to their proper home.

                In my reflections this Pentecost season, I have followed the semi-continuous readings, which stretched from the call of Abraham to the call of Deborah. In these readings, which took us from Genesis to Exodus and Deuteronomy and then on to Joshua and Judges, we have been reminded of God’s covenant promise to be a blessing to the nations through the presence and ministry of God’s covenant people. You could make an argument that the “least of these” referenced by Jesus is Israel. How the nations treat the covenant people is the basis of judgment. Blessings come to those nations who bless the covenant people. I will leave that possibility to your own reflections, and return to Ezekiel and the focus of his attention—a people living in exile, sheep who have been pushed aside by seemingly stronger sheep.

One key component of this narrative arc is God’s ongoing presence, even when God seems absent. For Christians living in the interim between first and second advent, hope can dissipate. We may feel compelled not only to make peace with the culture, but to allow it to form us in ways that lead us away from God’s promise. The story of Israel is that it is not a rich and powerful nation. It is not like Egypt, Babylon, or Persia. Yet, it perseveres, because God is faithful, even when Israel strays. Thus, the promise of the prophet. Israel is scattered, but the shepherd will seek out and restore the flock. Exile is not its permanent state.

                In this prophetic word, there is a word of judgment between righteous and unrighteous.  Symbolically, this is a judgment not between sheep and goats (as in the parable) but between sheep and goats. Those that eat well at the expense of the others will face judgment, while those who have be pushed aside will in the end be blessed. Here we have an expression of God’s preferential option for the poor and marginalized. Babylon, of course, is rich and powerful. They have pushed aside the smaller and more vulnerable nations, like Judah. 

                If might makes right, then Babylon is the poster child. At least that is true for the moment. That’s because, as God shares through Ezekiel: “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice” (Ezk. 34:16). God will find the strays, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. On the other hand, those that are fat and strong, they will be destroyed. Babylon might be big and powerful, but it is no match for the God of Israel, the shepherd, who reigns as sovereign judge.
                This promise might be attractive, but we live in a society that has bought into the Social Darwinism, a philosophy that borrows imagery from biology, but is not the same thing. Social Darwinism took the idea of “the survival of the fittest” and ran with it. It is a philosophy celebrated today in the visage of reality tv, and found its most visible expression in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century and in the genocidal policies of Adolph Hitler sought to create the master race, which meant that anyone not fitting his vision had to be removed one way or another. Thus, Jews, Gypsies, those with disabilities, gays and lesbians, all had to be exterminated.

On the day of judgment, the shepherd will rule against the “fat sheep” that pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.” These sheep will be culled from the flock, so that the others might thrive. We see this vision expressed in the principle of God’s preferential option for the poor, otherwise known as the “least of these of my family.” The promise of Ezekiel is that a day will come when David’s throne will be restored, and all will be fed and nourished. As Christians, we see this promise fulfilled in the promise of the advent of Christ, who will come in glory as judge and sovereign. In the words of Brian Wren: “When all is ended, time and troubles past, shall all be mended, sin and death outcast? In hope we sing, and hope to sing at last: Alleluia! Alleluia!” [“When All Is Ended,” Chalice Hymnal, 703]. 

Picture Attribution: Verboeckhoven, Eugène-Joseph, 1798-1881. Shepherdess with Her Flock, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55543 [retrieved November 20, 2017]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Eugene_Verboeckhoven,_A_Shepherdess_with_her_Flock.jpg.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Building the Good LIfe for All (L. Shannon Jung) - A Review

BUILDING THE GOOD LIFE FOR ALL: Transforming Income Inequality in our Communities. By L. Shannon Jung. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Vi + 125 pages.

The rich keep getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class is getting squeezed downward. The gap between the salaries of CEOs and the wages of workers is difficult to comprehend. Much has been said of late about income inequality and the growing gap between rich and poor in the United States. Politicians argue that tax cuts are needed for the “job creators” so they will be willing to invest in jobs in the United States, but there is little evidence that “trickledown economics” works as advertised. At the same time investment in infrastructure and education dwindles. Thus, the gap continues to grow wider every day, and we’re left to wonder if anything can be done to rectify the situation. More specifically, is there something that the church can do?

One who has some ideas that could bear fruit within the church is L. Shannon Jung, Professor Emeritus of Town and Country Ministry at Kansas City's St. Paul School of Theology. His focus is on the working poor, people who live paycheck to paycheck, and have little hope that the future is bright. Some are African American and Hispanic, but many are white men and women. This group of lower income people might not be officially listed as living in poverty, but its numbers are twice that of those officially defined as poor. He writes that “increasingly the middle class is becoming the working poor, and the economic plight of millions of Americans has become a major national concern” (p. 2). Jung refers to this group of people as Alec and Alice—with Alice signifying "Asset-Limited-Income-constrained, Employed." The implication of the book is that there are a lot of people working hard, but can’t seem to move beyond living amid economic uncertainty. The so-called American dream is further and further out of reach. People are angry. They’re “frustrated, overwhelmed, immobilized,” and politically, they are “encouraged to look after their own self-interest” (p. 3).

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wise Investments - Sermon for Pentecost 24A/Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 25:14-30

Since today is Thanksgiving Sunday, we gather to “raise a song of harvest home” for “all is safely gathered in.” Yes, “God our maker does provide for our wants to be supplied.” So we “come to God’s own temple,” to “raise the song of harvest home.” [Henry Alford, "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," Chalice Hymnal, 718]

We will have a number of opportunities over the next few days to give thanks for God’s abundance. Last night Brett and I attended the Turkish American Society of Michigan’s Thanksgiving Dinner. We got to share in fellowship with our friends from Turkey, and help them celebrate the season. Tonight there is the annual Troy-area Interfaith Group Thanksgiving Service, and then on Tuesday evening there is the Troy Clergy Group service. Then on Thursday many will gather with family and friends to share in fellowship, offering thanks for God’s provisions. Let us, therefore, “make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.” Let us “serve the LORD with gladness”; and “come into God’s presence with singing.” Why? “For the LORD is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, God’s faithfulness to all generations” (Ps. 100:1-2, 5). 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Calvin, for a Change -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

While we commemorate October 31, 1517 as the beginning point of the age of Reformation in Western Christianity, it was only a passing moment. Much more would come as time passed. Luther would be joined by others who often had differing emphases. Among them was John Calvin, the renowned Reformer of Geneva who has left his mark on not only Christian history, but also world history. Like Luther he has a complex legacy. My own tradition, the Disciples, are rooted in the Presbyterian tradition, a descendant of Calvin's movement. While the founders by and large rejected Calvin, we still bear many traces of his influence. Martin Marty, who is by tradition Lutheran, notes that his people stem from a community in Switzerland that was and is Reformed in orientation. Thus, he finds it appropriate to take note of Calvin's legacy as we continue our commemoration of the Reformation's 500th anniversary.  Take a read and offer your thoughts. If you find Calvin someone to honor, why?  If you think he should be criticized, why? 


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Calvin, for a Change
By MARTIN E. MARTY   November 13, 2017
John Calvin by Georg Osterwald (1803–1884)
Recovering, as many of us will and must, from massive doses of Lutherana—after media, scholars, and the pious both among them and beyond their range are doing following October 31 observances—we at Sightings do our scanning of headlines, twisting of dials, and conversing with kindred souls in order to locate and study new topics. One article, dated October 31 (“Reformation Day”), piqued interest: “Is Reformed theology for black people?” asked Jemar Tisby for Religion News Service, and the question he posed stays with us. Historically, black people have not found the Reformed—a.k.a. Calvinists—to regard them positively, we read and already knew; some, indeed, were slaveholders. But now, surprise! “The rise of Christian hip-hop has played a role in a recent surge of interest in Reformed theology among African-Americans,” a fact Tisby documents (see “Resources”).