Tuesday, June 20, 2017

For Southern Baptists, a Sudden Awakening and Turn on the “Alt-Right” - Sightings (Martin Marty)

We live in a volatile time, when issues of race and ethnicity have come to the center of our conversations. At a time when 81% of evangelicals supposedly voted for Donald Trump, questions about rationale for voting emerges. My sense is that it's not as simple as many would like to make it. In any case, questions of white privilege and white supremacy remain potent conversation pieces. So, when the largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, votes to oppose "Alt-Right White Supremacy," that makes news. After all, the SBC was born of a debate about slavery, and segregationist perspectives remained strong in the denomination. It is, therefore worth taking note when the annual convention decides to take a stand for racial justice, even if not everyone was comfortable with this step. Martin Marty, a thoughtful observer of things religious and public, makes takes a look at the question. As he notes, the sponsor of the resolution, Rev. Dwight McKissic is pleased, but knows that the conversation isn't over. Nonetheless, this is important stuff!

                                                                          
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For Southern Baptists, a Sudden Awakening and Turn on the “Alt-Right”
By MARTIN E. MARTY   June 19, 2017
Dr. Steve Gaines, president of the SBC | Credit: Dillonsherlock/Wikimedia Commons (cc, modified)
In a classic essay on “Denominationalism,” Sidney E. Mead observed that “[t]he denomination, unlike the traditional forms of the church, is not primarily confessional, and it is certainly not territorial. Rather it is purposive.” When Mead published that in 1954, he was commenting on Protestantism, but in American censuses, registries, and common-sense observation, all religious bodies are considered denominational now. Still, most of these consider themselves to be in some sense “confessional,” and all tend to be more at home in some parts of the country than in other “territories.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Father of Nations or a Mother’s Anguished Cry for Help - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 3A


The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 
20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
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                God made a promise and a covenant with Abraham. The promise was that God make of him a great nation, and that he and his descendants would be a blessing to the nations. Indeed, God promised to make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the heaven, something Abraham had difficulty believing since he and Sarah remained childless (Gen. 12:1-3; Gen. 15:1-6). At one point Abraham and Sarah decided to go with a surrogate. Sarah gave Abraham her slave, Hagar, as her surrogate, with the expectation that if Hagar bore a child to Abraham, this would be her child, and thus the promise might be fulfilled. Fulfilled it was, as Hagar bore a son, whom Abraham named Ishmael (Gen. 16:1ff). The problem of an heir has been solved, and we can move on, except that God has other ideas. God intends for Sarah to bear a child herself, despite the seeming impossibility of such a thing happening. Still God had promised that Sarah would be the mother of nations and kings (Gen. 17:15-22).  Despite Sarah’s own incredulity, she does bear a son with Abraham, and she names him Isaac (Gen. 21:1-7). In her mind, Isaac should be the heir, but since Ishmael is the older of the two, he still has a claim on the inheritance, and that is a problem in the mind of Sarah, who is determined to protect her son’s claim. Abraham may have great affection for both of his children, but he will have to choose, or will he?

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Harvest Time -- Sermon for Pentecost 2A



Matthew 9:35-10:8

Last Sunday we heard Jesus issue the Great Commission: “Go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This morning we hear another commission, but it’s more localized. We find ourselves on the far side of the resurrection, and as Jesus travels through Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of God’s realm, he realizes the people of Israel are “like sheep without a shepherd.” Because he has compassion for them, he tells the disciples that while “the harvest is plentiful,” the “laborers are few.” The metaphors are agricultural—shepherding and harvesting—but the point is simple. There is work to be done, which means more laborers, more shepherds, more harvesters, are needed. 

Jesus responds to this situation, by asking the disciples to pray that “the Lord of the harvest” would “send out laborers into this harvest.” As the reading continues, we discover that the answer to the prayer is this group of disciples, whom Jesus has gathered around him. Jesus is about to send them out into the world, to the lost sheep of Israel, to begin the harvest, because it is plentiful. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Eleanor: A Spiritual Biography -- A Review

ELEANOR: A Spiritual Biography. By Harold Ivan Smith. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xi + 239 pages.


Eleanor Roosevelt not only was the longest serving First Lady, but perhaps except for Hillary Clinton, she is surely the most influential First Lady in American History. That she was influential in the political/social realm is not surprising, but that she was a deeply spiritual person, who was committed to the Christian faith as a life-long Episcopalian, and that this faith influenced her social vision, might be surprising. I know that, while I had some sense of her importance as a political figure, not only during her tenure in the White House, but as a delegate to the United Nations, I did not know the extent of her faith. Her faith, her religion, was broad, liberal, and committed to justice. She was a friend of H. Richard Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, as well as Martin Luther King, Jr. She understands James’ declaration that faith without works is dead, as well as Micah’s call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with one's God stood at the heart of the Christian faith.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Niebuhr and the Human Dilemma


During my seminary days, I wrote a paper for my theology class, arguing against the concept of "original sin." I'm not sure I would reject that vision, but as time has passed, and my idealism has been tempered by realism, I am more and more led to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. As I look at the current political landscape, in which power does seem to corrupt absolutely, I have decided to spend some time with Niebuhr's classic social ethics, Moral Man in Immoral Society. Originally published in 1932, four years after he left Detroit for Union Seminary, he takes on our social context and its challenges. I will be sharing other words over the next weeks and months as I meditate on the message of the book, which I may have read long ago, but feel the need to dive deeper into it. So, I would like to just share the opening paragraph of the book, and invite you to contemplate with me its message:

Though human society has roots which lie deeper in history than the beginning of human life, men have made comparatively but little progress in solving the problem of their aggregate existence. Each century originates a new complexity and each new generation faces a new vexation in it. For all the centuries of experience, men have not learned how to live together without compounding their vices and covering each other "with mud and with blood." The society in which each man lives is at once the basis for, and the nemesis of, that fullness of life which each man seeks. However much human ingenuity may increase the treasures which nature provides for the satisfaction of human needs, they can never be sufficient to satisfy all human wants; for man, unlike other creatures, is gifted and cursed with an imagination which extends his appetites beyond the requirements of subsistence. Human society will never escape the problem of the equitable distribution of the physical and cultural goods which provide for the preservation and fulfillment of human life.  [Moral Man in Immoral Society, WJK, p. 1].
I should note that the language is not inclusive, but concern for inclusive language is a rather recent one. That said, what do you make of this? Is it pessimistic, or realistic? Do we really think that if we exchange the current leadership in Washington, everything will be wonderful? In this opening chapter he puts to rest the idea that democracy is the great equalizer. Democracy is by its very nature coercive. It is the will of the majority that rules, for good or ill!  So, what shall we do?   

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Hospitality to Strangers and a Laughable Promise - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 2A (Genesis)



18 The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” 10 Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

***************
                The season after Pentecost presents a dilemma if you’re going to provide a lectionary reflection on the first reading from scripture. There is a “semi-continuous” stream and a “paired” stream. So, which do you choose? I noticed that Feasting on the Word has chosen the paired version, but after some thought I decided to go with the semi-continuous version, which will take us through Genesis and into Exodus. We start with the visit of the three strangers to Abraham and Sarah at the Oaks of Mamre. It is here that a promise is given concerning a child, who will be the key to a blessing. But, the text opens with a story of hospitality shown to strangers. This may be an important word to our culture at a time when fear of the stranger seems rampant.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Epistle to the Ephesians (Karl Barth) -- A Review

THE EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS. By Karl Barth with Introductory Essays by Francis Watson and John Webster. Edited by R. David Nelson; translated by Ross M. Wright. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017. 182 pages.


Karl Barth remains one of the most influential, if at times enigmatic, theological voices nearly a half century after his death. One of the legacies of his work is his engagement with Scripture. Although conversant with the historical critical method of interpretation, he was more interested in hearing scripture as a theological voice speaking not only to an ancient time, but to the present. He was committed to the vision that in Scripture one could encounter the Word of God. He was not an inerrantist or an infallibilist, but he was open to it being a means through which one could hear God’s voice.  Barth first made a mark on the ecclesiastical world with his Romans commentary, which was first published while he was still a pastor at Safenwil, Switzerland. That bombshell of a book would come out in a second edition, shortly after Barth began his tenure at Göttingen University. Early in that tenure, during the winter semester of 1921-1922, Barth offered a series of lectures on Ephesians. These lectures are now made available to us in an English translation, revealing something of Barth’s early theology, but also his deepening engagement with the text of Scripture.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I Am with You Always - A Sermon for Trinity Sunday - Year A

Matthew 28:16-20

Today is, according to the church calendar, Trinity Sunday. On the matter of the Trinity, Disciples of Christ are not of one mind. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were Trinitarians, and Barton Stone was not. One of our important second generation Disciple leaders was Isaac Errett, who served as pastor of the Jefferson Avenue and Beaubien Street Church in Detroit during the 1860s. He wrote a pamphlet titled Our Position. In that pamphlet he wrote that while Disciples accept the biblical statements about the “trinity of persons in the Godhead, we repudiate alike the philosophical and theological speculations of Trinitarians and Unitarians, and all unauthorized forms of speech on a question which transcends human reason, and on which it becomes us to speak ‘in words which the Holy Spirit teaches’” [Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, pp. 297-298].  In other words, we’re going to stick with Bible terms! Of course there are some among us, including me, who like to delve into “theological speculations,” including speculations about the nature of God, whom a majority of Christians confess to be “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” 

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Building Bridges at an Iftar Dinner

Last night around seventy people gathered at Central Woodward Christian Church for an Iftar Dinner, so as to break the Ramadan Fast. This is the second year that we have done this in partnership with our friends at the Turkish American Society of Michigan. We opened the door, they brought a program and delicious food. We hope to make this an annual event going forward.  This year the gathering was even larger than the previous year as we sent out an invitation through the Troy-area Interfaith Group, as well as personal invitations on my part to several community leaders. Once the word got out, people chose to join us from across the area -- as far away as Dearborn.  Even though we didn't eat until after 9 PM, starting with eating a date to break the fast provided by one of my Muslim friends, who just happened to have a case of dates in his car, it was a beautiful, powerful evening that will not be forgotten!

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

The Necessity of Bridge-Building -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Bridge-Builder. That is a vocation I have pursued. I've tried to be a connector -- not always successfully, but I do believe that it is a worthy vocation. The interfaith group that until I recently I led, claimed its motto that "peace in the world requires peace among religions." Another area that needs bridge builders is the LGBTQ community. Though the war has been won -- the closets have been emptied -- conflict is still present. They key to change has been relationships. Martin Marty takes note of that reality, especially as it is being exemplified in the efforts of Jesuit James Martin, who has a new book out that speaks to the hope that a bridge between LGBTQ community and the Catholic Church, which sees homosexuality as a disordered condition. Let us pray he has success. In the meantime, continue reading! 

                                                                                             
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The Necessity of Bridge-Building
By MARTIN E. MARTY   June 5, 2017
The Golden Gate Bridge | Photo Credit: Shane Taremi/Flickr via Compfight (cc)
David Levithan, author of Boy Meets Boy (2003) and Two Boys Kissing (2013), will be awarded with the 2017 Chicago Tribune Young Adult Literary Prize at next weekend’s Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Many of the bestselling author’s books feature gay characters and plots. A few decades ago his books would have been burned and the author scorned in most American cities. Today, as the Lit Fest world celebrates such books and authors, some adults still express concern or disapproval, while many (most?) young adults, our spies on the YA literature scene, yawn. There are battles ahead, but the war over LGBT rights has already been won by advocates. “Get used to it!” critics of the genre and its subjects are told.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

God the Creator - A Lectionary Reflection for Trinity Sunday A (Genesis)

Genesis 1:1-2:4a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. 
And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day. 

Monday, June 05, 2017

The Rule of Faith (Everett Ferguson) -- A Review

THE RULE OF FAITH: A Guide. (Cascade Companions). By Everett Ferguson. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Xii + 104 pages.

                I am a member of the clergy in a non-creedal faith community. People in my tradition tend to recoil at anything that smacks of a creed, believing that such things crimp our freedom and end up being tests of fellowship. I understand the feeling, though I’m more comfortable with the historic creeds (Apostles and Nicene) than many in my tradition. While this resistance to creeds is understandable, especially considering the way faith statements have been used to exclude. Nonetheless, it seems to me that having some form of a summary of common beliefs might be helpful, even if we don’t call them creeds. With this in mind, perhaps the “Rule of Faith,” which emerged in a variety of forms early in the life of the church would be helpful to the contemporary church.

One who has deep knowledge of the early church and its development and use of these “rules” is Everett Ferguson, Professor Emeritus of Bile and Church History at Abilene Christian University. He is highly regarded in the field of early Christian history, and served as the Editor of the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, [2nd edition, (Garland, 1997)]. Ecclesially, Ferguson hails from the Churches of Christ, a non-creedal community, that shares common roots with my denomination, a movement that many have called The Stone-Campbell Movement. Ferguson understands the resistance to creeds, but he is also deeply aware of the need to provide summaries of the Christian faith, especially ones that draw from Scripture.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

One Body, One Spirit -- Sermon for Pentecost Sunday


1 Corinthians 12:3-13

I have a funny story to tell. Somehow, as I was laying out my sermon plans, when I got to Pentecost, I decided to go with the lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians 12. But, for some reason I put down 1 Corinthians 13 instead. Then, when I sat down to do worship planning, I used 1 Corinthians 13 as the guide. I also began contemplating how this message of love fit with Pentecost. It didn’t dawn on me until Tuesday morning that I had the wrong text. When I read through the lectionary selection, I thought it was odd that the lectionary would omit the first two verses. Now, the creators of the lectionary have their reasons for omitting verses of a passage, but what is it about speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels that would be controversial. So, I turned to a lectionary commentary to see why these verses had been omitted. To my surprise, I discovered that I had the wrong text.  But, now everything made sense, including the title of the sermon. That’s how we got to 1 Corinthians 12 this morning, instead of 1 Corinthians 13. But, we’re still going to sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love” as our closing hymn!

Friday, June 02, 2017

Paris

Yesterday President Trump announced that he would halt implementation of the Paris Climate Accords, and thus remove the United States from the voluntary pact. This accord has been agreed to by almost the entire world.  We hear that the America First party in the White House won the debate. Though the President suggests that the accords are bad for the United States and will cost millions of jobs, the fact that many of America's largest companies, including energy companies supported staying in, as well as our allies across the world, perhaps suggests otherwise.

Here's my take. I doubt very much that the President's rationale holds much water, economically or environmentally. On the other hand, I'm not sure that this is as apocalyptic a moment as suggested by some critics. What it does suggest, however,, is that at least on environmental matters, the United States is ceding leadership to others. That China is poised to fill the gap, largely in self-interest to curb horrific air pollution, should catch our attention. We may have the largest military in the world, and the largest economy in the world, but maybe all of this is a sign of America's decline.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

More Than Words (Erin Wathen) -- A Review

MORE THAN WORDS: 10 Values for the Modern Family. By Erin Wathen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 173 pages.


MORE THAN WORDS: 10 Values for the Modern Family. By Erin Wathen. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 173 pages.

There is a lot of talk across the land about family values. More often than not, the “family values” that certain groups in society wish to restore look a lot like a return to the 1950s. Now, I enjoy watching re-runs of Leave It to Beaver, but do we really want to return to the day of June Cleaver, in her dress and pearls, mopping up after Beaver and his friends. Often these "values" amount to little more than a return to the way things were in the 1950s, when June Cleaver wore a dress and pearls as she mopped the floor after Beaver and his friends. Unfortunately, many of the so-called “family values” that are being offered up by advocates are tinged with bigotry, homophobia, sexism, and misogynism. Are these really the values we want for our families in the 21st century?

 In More than Words, Disciples of Christ pastor Erin Wathen, takes up the idea of family values, which, as she notes, progressive Christians tend to shy away from. In fact, she suggests that because of the way in which family values are portrayed, many progressives are steering clear of any talk of family. She writes: We don’t want to exclude those whose homes don’t fit in the box of a traditional, nuclear family, and we certainly don’t want to be associated with ‘those Christians.’ The ones who say that God called all women to be homemakers, that the gays are going to burn in hell, and that we should all homeschool our children to keep them away from the scary science books.” (p. 2). While she doesn’t want to get sucked down that “rabbit hole” but she doesn’t want to abandon the conversation about family (whatever its configuration).