Thursday, March 23, 2017

Religion and Human Rights

·     Tuesday evening I had the privilege of being one of three speakers at a Niagara Foundation sponsored Abrahamic Dinner.  This event was held at Rochester College, and brought together members of the Islamic, Jewish, and Christian communities -- to promote dialog and understanding. Each of us, a Rabbi, an Imam, a Christian pastor, was asked to speak to the ways in which our faith traditions understand human rights, and whether this overlaps with or differs from secular understandings. We were asked to speak from the perspective of our own faith tradition, which is difficult when Christianity's 2 billion adherents are divided into thousands of denominations and sects. Nonetheless, I did my best!  As for my partners, the Rabbi went first, and I didn't find much if anything to disagree with. In fact, he set me up nicely! As for the Imam, I learned a lot about the flexibility of Islamic law, which allows for support of human rights (more so perhaps than secular American law).

Since this is an important conversation, I decided to share some of what I said. Below you will find my answer to the first question, which dealt with my traditions codes of human rights and relationship to secular codes.  Before I share below, I want to add that I agree completely with the Rabbi's statement that the Jewish tradition, and the Christian tradition following it, speaks not of rights but obligations.  That said, I invite you to consider my response:

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Humanities Endangered -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

On the budget chopping block are the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They make up a minuscule part of the budget, but seem easy pickings for budget cutters. After all, what "results" can be measured from the humanities? In fact, what are the humanities? Don't we need to invest in STEM, which leads to good jobs? Let me question differently: does history matter? Does literature matter? These are the humanities. The funds from this endowment doesn't just fund projects by elitist academics. It funds programs at the local historical society that help students understand their community better. Martin Marty is one who understands this question better than most, and I appreciate his word for the week, and share it with you, that you might take up the cause. That is, if you think that telling our stories is just as important as building a few bombs!

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Editor's note: Sightings will be off this Thursday for the University's spring interim. See you next week!
Humanities Endangered
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 20, 2017
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with historian and filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 10-part, 18-hour documentary series The Vietnam Warwhich will air on PBS in Septemberwas funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities | Photo Credit: U.S. Department of State
In and after the present chaos, should our republic survive as a republic, wounded but responsible citizens will need to assess what they lost and what they might recover. So many humane causes will beckon for attention. The arts and humanities may have a lower priority when it comes to the Union’s constitutional commitment to promoting the general welfare—relative to higher priorities like care for the aged, the ill, the poor, the displaced—but they deserve a glance in this time of crisis. In the proposed national budget they would be demolished. Sightings, however, has stayed alert to them. We know more about them and their place than we do about many other causes.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Revelations of the Heart -- Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4A (1 Samuel)

1 Samuel 16:1-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
16 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.”[a] But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.


                To date the Lenten readings from the Hebrew Bible have taken us from the call of Abram to the ministry of Moses in the desert and now to the anointing of David as king of Israel. In each of these passages God acts to forward the way of blessing. It’s not that things go swimmingly. Abram and Sarai are called, but lack that necessary child to continue the line. Moses has to deal with a crew that is always complaining about something. Then comes the age of the monarchy. We know from the opening chapters of 1 Samuel, that the people demanded a king so they could be just like everybody else, but in doing so they were challenging the kingship of God. The first attempt at answering this demand was the anointing of Saul, but that didn’t work out. So, God told the prophet Samuel to go and find a successor to Saul. He was directed to the home of Jesse of Bethlehem, among whose sons Samuel would find the chosen king.

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear (MIchael Kinnamon) - A Review

THE WITNESS OF RELIGION IN AN AGE OF FEAR. By Michael Kinnamon. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. X + 122 pages.

Once upon a time an American President declared that the “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Franklin Roosevelt made that declaration in his first inaugural address, even as the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression. Times have changed, and we have entered an “age of fear.” It doesn’t matter what your political commitments are, fear has taken hold of our lives. While fear has its benefits, too often it takes hold of our lives in dangerous and destructive ways.

When it comes to the things we fear, the list is long. It might be changing demographics or economic uncertainty. It might be crime or unfettered access to guns. It might be the religious other who has moved into the community and erected mosques and synagogues and temples. We seem anxious about the threat of terrorism, but then that’s the point of terrorism. Terrorists win when people live fearful and anxious lives. Unfortunately, one of the contributors to this emerging age of fear is religion. Religion often is the stirrer of fear, but it can also be a calming voice in the midst of chaos.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seeds of Blessings - a Sermon for Lent (Genesis 12).

Genesis 12:1-4

The word “bless” is found in some form nearly 600 times in the New Revised Standard Version. When I looked up the words we translate bless, blessed, and blessing in my Bible dictionary, I discovered that the Hebrew words speak of health, longevity, and fertility. I also discovered that it can be translated as flourishing. So, if you say “I’m blessed,” or “what a blessing,” is this what you mean? 

When Bruce Barkhauer was with us, he spoke of a "thread of hope" running through Scripture, linking creation to new creation. I believe that there is also a "thread of blessing" running through scripture that connects the call of Abram to Jesus, and through Jesus we are connected to the realm of God. 

This morning we heard God call Abram to leave his homeland and migrate to a new land so that God could make him and his descendants a great nation so that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him or because of him. All he had to do was pack up his family, and head out toward a new and strange land. We might call this a true Lenten journey, because Abram had a lot to lose if he took up this vocation. He also had much to gain, but that would take a leap of faith. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Hard Power in an Age of Fear

Many of us who grew up in church learned the story of David and Goliath in Sunday School. In that story the Philistine army featured a very strong and very large warrior named Goliath. He is described as being six cubits and a span in height. In other words, very tall! He was so tall that he instilled fear in the army of Israel. No one was willing to go up against him, until a young shepherd arrived. That shepherd was named David, and he volunteered to meet the enemy. He did so, not armed with conventional armament but with a sling and a few stones. He prevailed. (1 Samuel 17).

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Transitioning Out of Mediocrity -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

The church hasn't yet fully responded to the question of faith and sexual orientation, but it's not the only question to be pondered. There is also the question of gender identity. Neither sets of questions are new, but the church dealing with them openly is rather new. Martin Marty, who completed his theological education, by his own admission, two years prior to my birth notes that questions of cisgender (a term so recent that my spell checker doesn't recognize it) and transgender weren't part of his theological education. I'm not sure it was part of mine either, thirty years later. Nevertheless, this is a conversation some of us are having and the culture at large is engaged in it, thus the church will have to come to the Table sooner or later. In the meantime, I invite you to read this brief Sightings essay by Martin Marty, who offers words of wisdom and points us to helpful resources as well.

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Transitioning Out of Mediocrity
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 13, 2017
Participants in a march through Karura Forest in Nairobi, Kenya, one of the international women's marches on January 21, 2017 | Photo Credit: Voice of America
Cisgender dysphoria, transgender identity, etc., were not part of my formal curriculum in theology or religious studies, which ended at 3:00 p.m. on graduation day, December 14th, 1956. The earliest known use of the term “transgender” was in 1974, and it entered dictionaries only after 1988. “Trans-” was joined by sibling “cis-” even more recently. The phenomena to which these terms point have arrived in the clinic, the court, the classroom, and the sanctuary with such force that some alert citizens, religious or not, have found themselves struggling to find a way in the wake of their arrival. In our theologically and politically polarized society, not all the related discourse or actions have been civil, or manifest “the fruit of the Spirit.”

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Plant Gardens and Eat the Produce - A Reflection (Jeremiah 29)

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream,[a]for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 
10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

The Exodus and the Exile figure prominently in scripture. The former, the Exodus, provides an important foundation for our Table Fellowship. The Last Supper remembers Passover, and the theme of manna is also prominent in our Eucharistic theology. The Exile might not figure as prominently in our understanding of Table Fellowship, but it was a defining event in the life of Israel, and our story, as followers of Jesus, is rooted in that story as well. We live in the world as exiles and nomads. As Jesus told prospective disciples, he didn’t have a place to lay his head, and he told Pilate that his was a kingdom not of this world. We live in the world, but not of the world. Despite this sense of impermanence, we find a sense of hope and purpose as we gather together at the Table.  

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Is God With Us? - Lectionary Reflection - Lent 3A (Exodus)

Exodus 17:1-7 Common English Bible (CEB)
17 The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink.The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” 
Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?” 
But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?” 
So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.” 
The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go. I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched.He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”


                In Advent we heard the message of Emmanuel—God is with Us—in Lent we hear the question—“Is the Lord really with us or not?” The Advent declaration appears in the revelation to Joseph that the child of his betrothed was conceived of the Holy Spirit and that God would save the people from their sins through him (Matt. 1:18-25). The Lenten question is raised during a rather tense encounter between Moses and the people of Israel as they wandered across the desert. The murmuring or complaining of the people of Israel is a constant theme in Exodus. The people cried out to God, seeking deliverance from slavery. Now that they are free, they have other complaints, and the person who bears the brunt of these complaints is Moses. A chapter earlier, the complaint had to do with food. Now it’s a lack of water that concerns the people. You have to feel for Moses, because he has been put in an untenable position. He had claimed that he was acting on behalf of God, after demonstrating God’s power, the people agreed to follow him. Whether they understood the full ramifications of this decision is unknown. Of course, had we been among the people affected, we probably would be complaining as well. After all, water is essential to life, so why would you camp in place where water was absent?

Monday, March 13, 2017

They Devoted Themselves . . . A Lenten Devotion

Acts 2:41-42
41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

On the day of Pentecost the church burst open as a great multitude responded to the good news of Jesus. Not only did they respond to the good news of salvation, but they became a community that centered themselves around four practices - apostles teaching, fellowship (koinonia), breaking of bread, and prayers. These four practices have been preserved in Christian worship. Each plays a role in our life together. 

We are, as Disciples, a Table-centered Church. We gather weekly for Table-fellowship believing that Jesus is present with us at the Table. Indeed, Jesus is the host at this Table, not us, and so we seek to embrace Jesus' own eating habits, remembering that he ate with sinners and tax-collectors (among whom we are to be counted). What was once a communal meal, perhaps a potluck, in time became more ritualized. There are reasons why this occurred, but as Keith Watkins reminds us, even after the full meal disappeared, the sense of that meal continued on in ritual form as the church gathered together and shared in bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus. He writes: "Just as a birthday cake conveys the central meaning of a birthday dinner, so the bread and wine convey the central meaning of our life together in Jesus Christ: that he is the bread that comes from God so that we might be fed" [Patterns of Faith in a Table-centered Church, p. 10].

So, as we gather together-hearing the Word, sharing life together, praying (and singing), as well as breaking bread-what is happening to us? How does the idea of koinonia, of community, inform our gathering at the Table? If we scan down a few verses in Acts 2, after Luke takes note of their worship life, he speaks of the life together as community. He suggested that, at least for a moment, the community shared all things in common, and no one was in need, and "day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people." (Acts 2:44-46). How then are we being formed as a people? How are we exhibiting in our life together God's new creation in Christ? How do we inhabit the realm of God in our gatherings for worship around the Table?

This is the Lenten devotional for today as published in Central Woodward Christian church's 2017 Lenten Devotional. This year's devotional features texts that connect with our focus on Table and Mission, which is being supported by a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

No Signs for You -- A Sermon for Lent 2A (Repost)

NOTE: Due to a major windstorm, which has knocked out power at Central Woodward Christian Church since Wednesday afternoon, we are worshiping with our sisters and brothers at Northminster Presbyterian Church. I will preach the sermon written for today, next Sunday. In its stead, I'm re-sharing a sermon preached in 2014 on the Second Sunday of Lent (Year A). The text is part of an alternative lectionary produced by David Ackerman. May this be a blessing. 

When I plan out my sermon schedule, I decide upon a text and then try to come up with a good title. Then, when I actually sit down to write the sermon, sometimes a few months later, the direction the sermon takes may have changed.  So, when I read this passage, a famous phrase from Seinfeld came to mind.  Remember the Soup Nazi?  He made great soup, but he was very particular about how you ordered the soup.  If you ruffled his feathers, he would say: “No soup for you!”  

In reading this passage some months ago, I heard Jesus saying to the religious leaders in his audience, who came to him asking for a sign, “No signs for you.”  What I originally heard in this text was the demand that many make on people of faith to prove the existence of God.  That can be a very intellectual pursuit.  Theologians and philosophers from Anselm to Aquinas to Kant, have expended a lot of energy trying to prove that God exists.  And when they’re done, the God they offer us can be abstract and lifeless.  It’s hard to have a relationship with the “Ground of Being.”  

In this case, the religious leaders weren’t demanding proof that God exists.  They wanted proof that Jesus spoke for God.  They wanted confirmation, which would include miraculous deeds like healings.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t offer them signs, they just weren’t satisfied with the ones he’d given them.   Since Matthew isn’t shy about offering up miracle stories, I can hear in this passage an impatient Jesus asking these inquisitors: “What more do you want?”  Only an evil generation keeps coming back wanting more evidence.  You have enough evidence, so make your choice – will it be God or not?

That is part of the story, but there’s more to it than that.  Jesus points us to two biblical stories. First, there’s Jonah and Nineveh.  Then there’s the story of the Queen of Sheba.  Jonah is the reluctant prophet who ends up in Nineveh, preaching to a people he despises, only to see them repent and follow God.  As for the Queen of Sheba, she comes to Solomon, seeking wisdom - a wisdom Solomon’s own sons reject.  Now, standing before them is a person greater than either Jonah or Solomon.  If Nineveh answered the call and the Queen of Sheba answered the call, why can’t they heed his voice?  

Once again, we need to be careful in how we read this passage.  It’s very easy to read it in an anti-Jewish manner.  We can find ourselves blaming the Jews for not believing in Jesus, while Gentiles embraced him.  So, if we can steer clear of that kind of interpretation, this passage may have something important to say to us.  

Last week we talked about self-examination.  That is an important part of our Lenten journey – looking inside, underneath the masks we all put on.  In this reading, we hear a question about our ability and willingness to hear the voice of God.  Can we, as Christians, become complacent and fail to heed the voice of God?  Or, are we looking for signs in the sky? 

Jesus isn’t interested in engaging in “apologetics” – trying to prove God exists.  Arguing with the likes of Richard Dawkins isn’t a pressing concern.   While there still are plenty of “cultured despisers” out there, the more pressing concern today is whether the church has something valuable to say about God.  

Rather than look to the philosophers, we might want to look at someone like Pope Francis.  He just celebrated the one year anniversary of his election to the papacy, and over the past year he has changed the face of the Catholic Church.  It doesn’t matter what your religion is – Francis has inspired people with his warmth, his compassion, his humanness.  

There is a lot of concern in Christian circles about the decline of the church.  Increasing numbers of people, especially younger people, have either left the church or ignore it.  Most of the folks who fit into the category that survey-takers call “the Nones” don’t reject the idea of God’s existence.  Many of them are quite spiritual in orientation.  They just don’t see the value in religious institutions, especially ones that they think exclude people because of their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status, their gender, or their sexual orientation.

  Forty years ago, church growth gurus declared that conservative churches were growing because they had very definite doctrines and expectations.  It is true, that many conservative churches grew by making very clear distinctions about what was true and what was false.  But, that’s changing.  It’s not that liberal churches are growing, but conservative ones have begun to see decline in their numbers, especially among people under forty.  

Why are the churches experiencing decline?  Well, liberal churches fell into the trap of privatizing their faith so they wouldn’t offend anyone.  They embraced the idea that religion, like politics, isn’t appropriate in polite company.  Conservative Churches have begun to decline because their message no longer resonates.  Many people simply aren’t attracted to places that claim to have all the answers, deny scientific truths, limit the roles of women, and exclude people because of their sexual orientation. 

One of the reasons why Pope Francis is so popular, especially among younger people, whether Catholic or not, is because he exudes a sense of openness to the world.  His decision to live in a monastery rather than the papal apartments, or his decision to wear ordinary shoes rather than red papal shoes are signs that he gets the concern about hypocrisy among Christians. 

 I recently finished reading a book by Ken Wilson entitled A Letter to My Congregation.  Ken is the pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor.  What is important about this book, and Ken’s ministry, is that he has come to the conclusion that the church is called to fully embrace gay, lesbian, and transgender people.  What makes the book and the ministry somewhat unique is that he is an evangelical. He came to this understanding in large part due to his pastoral work, which led him to rethink his interpretation of scripture and beliefs about gay folk.  He began meeting with parents whose children are gay and lesbian, as well as gay and lesbian Christians.  They wanted to know – does God love me for who I am?  Besides the pastoral side of things, there was the missional element.  He realized that his congregation, though it did pretty well reaching out to younger people – it’s very contemporary in its worship – the congregation was aging.  He realized that in a place like Ann Arbor, having a policy that excluded people who are gays undermined the mission of the church.  Wilson concluded:
Causing an unnecessary disincentive to follow Christ is a serious offense, at least as serious as failing to uphold a moral good.  It would be easy to ignore or dismiss this concern if I didn’t think it had substantial merit. [A Letter to My Congregationp. 50.]
The way the church treats LGBT people is only one issue among many.  There is also the issue of science and climate change.  There’s the place of the poor, the immigrant, and the disabled. 

Years ago the movie The Elephant Man made a significant impression on me.  The movie tells the story of John Merrick.  Like many films this one takes considerable license, even changing Merrick’s name from Joseph to John.  One of the most compelling moments of the film came when Dr. Treves, who had come to examine this man whom society saw as a freak and even a monster, overheard John reciting Psalm 23.  What made this remarkable was that Dr. Treves believed that John was so intellectually disabled that he couldn’t speak.  What was the message that I heard?  It was that a man whom society considered expendable and an object of disgust was in truth a man of great intelligence and compassion.  Therefore, I heard the message that we should always value people, no matter their intellectual capacity, their looks, or their ethnicity.  It would take me much longer before I could add sexual orientation to that list.

     Although there are those who struggle with intellectual questions about the Christian faith, more often than not, the questions that inquirers have on their hearts and minds have more to do with our behavior.  As Stacey Simpson Duke, another Ann Arbor pastor, puts it: “We do not need more evidence; we are the evidence.”  It is “our regenerated lives” that “are the sign of Jonah: Christ crucified and raised” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1,  1:336].  Yes, that is the only sign we need!!   

Preached By:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Lent 2A
March 16, 2014

Thursday, March 09, 2017

Dream with Me (John Perkins) -- A Review

DREAM WITH ME: RaceLove, and the Struggle We Must Win. By John M. Perkins. Foreword by Randy Alcorn. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017. 218 pages.

I've been acquainted by name with John Perkins since at least my seminary days back in the 1980s. Perkins was in Pasadena working with his Harambee Christian Family Center at the same time I was at Fuller Seminary. What I knew of him was that he was a respected African American evangelical leader with a strong commitment to social justice and civil rights. While I knew of his book Let Justice Roll Down, I don’t remember reading it. Having the opportunity to read Dream with Me allowed me to finally become fully acquainted with his life and ministry.

As you read the book you’re reminded that a concern for social justice doesn’t require a liberal form of theology. Theologically Perkins is conservative, and yet he spent his life pursuing social justice, even as he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus. The book’s title touches base with Martin Luther King's dream. That dream plays an important role in his story, that includes both civil rights activism and a commitment to reconciliation. That dream is further defined by the book’s subtitle: “Race, Love, and the Struggle We Must Win.” 

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Living Faithfully in an Age of Fear

The new President's team is preparing a budget. If a budget reveals something about the heart of the budget-maker, what it reveals is that we live in an age of fear. Most of the budget priorities, including building a wall along the southern border speaks to the fear of the other. Expanding the military, ICE, and the border patrol, while cutting funds for the arts, humanities, and restoration of the Great Lakes is a sign of fear. The travel ban, which is in its second edition, whether or not it's explicitly directed at Muslims, is an expression of fear of the other. We can blame the President for the response, but as they say where there's an itch, there will be a scratch. 

I'm in the processing of reading a relatively brief book that addresses our culture of fear. Michael Kinnamon, a Disciples of Christ theologian and ecumenist (he served as the Executive Secretary of the National Council of Churches). The title of the book speaks volumes: The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear.  When I finish the book I will write a review, but as I pondered the state of our nation and world, the image of "the age of fear" seems like an appropriate designation. 

Kinnamon notes that "fear has a legitimate, even vital, role to plan in human society." It serves to keep us alert to danger and marshal resources. He notes that religious minorities in Iraq and Syria, along with residents of low-lying Pacific Islands have reason to fear. They are in danger.  But, when fear "becomes excessive or misdirected" it "becomes dangerous." That is because "it can lead us to misperceive the world around us and can undermine our willingness to interact constructively with others." [Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear, pp. 2-3]. That seems to be our issue. We misperceive the danger, so that even as crime rates fall to rates not seen in decades, we're told the story of an "American carnage." So instead of building bridges we build walls that further deepen our fear and anxiety. 

Kinnamon argues in the book that religion can be a constructive presence in the midst of this age of fear. It's not that we've taken up this calling with any resolve, but there is the potential in all our religious traditions to change the tone of our conversations. In the Christian tradition, there's no better statement of this than the words found in 1 John: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear" (1 John 4:18).  Kinnamon invites us to join together in facing down the forces of fear that cast a shadow over the land. We can do this because "we have resources in our sacred traditions that can counter the fear that is so rampant in contemporary America---if only we will identify and use them." (Kinnamon, p. 8). To this I say amen. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

A Blessing to the Nations - A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 2A (Genesis 12)

Genesis 12:1-4 Common English Bible (CEB)
Abram’s family moves to Canaan
12 The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
    those who curse you I will curse;
        all the families of the earth
            will be blessed because of you.”
Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.

                This short passage is one of the most foundational texts in scripture (at least that’s my view). God calls Abram (name not yet changed to Abraham) to leave his home and extended family, and travel to a foreign land. If he does this then God promises that he will become a “a great nation” blessed by God. Not only will Abram be blessed, but in addition “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.” The lectionary selection is brief and yet powerful. God asks a lot of Abram, telling him to leave behind everything he has known. In a world in which tribe was central, it was risky to go to go to a land in which one was a stranger. While the promise itself was wonderful, the question was how would it work out?

Monday, March 06, 2017

Healing Spiritual Wounds (Carol Howard Merritt) -- Review

HEALING SPIRITUAL WOUNDS: Reconnecting with a Loving Godafter Experiencing a Hurtful Church. By Carol Howard Merritt. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2017. 232 pages.

Stories abound of people who have been spiritually wounded. Such wounds come in many forms. We have heard much about clergy sex abuse scandals. LGBTQ folks often discover that churches and religious people can be not only unwelcoming but overtly hostile to them. Religion has been used to justify racism and sexism. There are the preachers who rain down upon their congregations words of anger and abuse, often creating a climate of fear, guilt, and shame. The result of these experiences are spiritual wounds that often lead the wounded person to conclude that religion and God are not worth the trouble.  If they're to find healing they conclude that it won't be found in a religious context and likely won't involve God.  So, is it possible for someone to experience such realities and reconnect with God?

Carol Howard Merritt believes that it is possible for people who experience wounds to find healing and reconnect with a loving God. Carol is a Presbyterian pastor, speaker, and author (and a friend). She has her own story of spiritual woundedness, which makes this book a memoir as well as an invitation to those who have been wounded to find healing.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

TEMPTATIONS? OH REALLY! - A Sermon for Lent 1A

We have a guest preacher this morning -- Rev. Bruce Barkhauer, of the Center for Faith and Giving. With that in mind, I decided to go back in time and pull a sermon for this particular Sunday and share it with you. I preached this in February 2005, while I served as pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA. May this word be a blessing to you.


Matthew 4:1-11

The Last Temptation of Christ is a really bizarre movie, but it asks an important question: What does it mean for Jesus to be truly human?  The movie portrays Jesus as physically weak and emotionally unsure of himself.  This Jesus feels a call from God, but he also feels pulled in other directions.  It’s no wonder many Christians complained, but then again, what about those temptations?  

The movie pictures the last temptation as a dream of what life would be like if Jesus were to climb down off the cross and just live a normal life.  What would it be like to have a job, a wife, kids?  That’s a pretty powerful temptation – living a normal life.   But then he wakes up from the dream, takes a last breath, and dies.    

Though the gospels talk about the temptations of Jesus, too read these accounts with the premise that if Jesus is the Son of God he can’t give in to temptation.  But what if, after fasting for 40 days, Jesus could give in to temptation?  What if these are real temptations?  I mean, did Jesus have to eat to live or was he like Commander Date of the Starship Enterprise, who just ate to be polite?  In other words, did Jesus really share our humanity and did he experience life as we experience it?      

Thursday, March 02, 2017

God's Provision -- A Reflection

 In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up-for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground- 7 then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  -- Genesis 2:4b-9 

 God's Provision

 In the beginning, after God created the earth (and the heavens), God planted a Garden. Then God placed the human being in that Garden to till it and enjoy its bounty. Everything that was needed was provided (except another human being for fellowship, but that's a different emphasis). The key here is that every plant necessary to eat was present, and everything in the Garden was pleasant to the eye and good to eat. There were also two trees in the Garden, one being the Tree of Life and the other the Tree of Knowledge. There is a warning here about eating from the Tree of Knowledge, but not the Tree of Life. That tree, the Tree of Life, is the important one, because if we follow the biblical narrative to its conclusion in Revelation 22, we will find ourselves in the Garden, with the Tree of Life front and center. In the picture from Revelation 22, there is a river flowing from the throne of God, out through the city streets, with the Tree of Life standing on either side of this River of Life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit (Rev. 12:1-2). The fruit of the tree feeds the people and its leaves provide healing. What a glorious vision it is, and it's a vision that originates here in Genesis 2. 

As we begin a journey through Lent, which will invite us to consider bread and wine and meals shared, this opening story reminds us that God is our provider. What God provides is pleasant to the sight and good to eat. Each of our meals, as we break bread and share in the cup, takes us back to the Garden, and forward to the grand banquet in God's realm, where once again we will have the opportunity to share the fruit of the Tree of life, which will sustain us for eternity. 

While we experience exile, let us remember, as the hymn writer Maltbie Babcock put it: 
Our God has made this world; oh, let us ne'er forget that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet. God trusts us with this world, to keep it clean and fair. All earth and trees, the skies and seas, God's creatures everywhere. (“This is My Father's World,” Chalice Hymnal, 59). 
Let us give thanks to God, who provides bread daily for the journey until we finally arrive back at the Garden, where the Tree of Life stands, that we might share in its bounty.

Note:  This meditation was contributed to the Central Woodward Christian Church Lenten Devotional (for Feb. 27, 2017).