Tuesday, March 20, 2018

God the Vindicator -- A Lectionary Reflection for Passion Sunday

Isaiah 50:4-9A New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
    the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens—
    wakens my ear
    to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious,
    I did not turn backward.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
    and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
    from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
    he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
    Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
    Let them confront me.
9a It is the Lord God who helps me;
    who will declare me guilty?

                We have reached the penultimate moment in the Lenten journey. Christians, at least in the West, will be observing Palm Sunday, or perhaps Passion Sunday. I have always approached Palm Sunday with a bit of unease. After all, the triumphal nature of the day is fleeting. So, perhaps focusing on the Passion is more appropriate, even if we might regather on Friday to hear again the passion story. The reading from Isaiah 50, which forms the third Servant Song, has been read by Christians, along with the other Servant Songs, down the centuries as descriptions of the suffering Jesus experienced as he went to the cross. While the fourth Servant Song is the most revelatory when it comes to the Servant’s suffering (Isa. 52:13-53:12), this Song offers insight into his experience as one who was struck and bruised, but vindicated. In this reading for Passion Sunday, we hear this promise of vindication, making clear that the attacks on the servant are not the last word.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear (Matthew Kaemingk) - A Review

CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITYAND MUSLIM IMMIGRATON IN AN AGE OF FEAR. By Matthew Kaemingk. Foreword by James K.A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018. Xiv + 338 pages.

                It didn’t take long after Donald Trump became President, that his administration began taking steps to limit travel to the United States from predominantly Muslim countries in the name of homeland security. His presidential campaign had capitalized on Islamophobia, which has taken hold in America over the past two decades. It’s not only in the United States that fear of Muslims has driven political debates. Anti-Muslim sentiment is even stronger in Europe, where far-right populist parties have been pushing the debate. Violence has broken out across the continent as Muslims experience marginalization and persecution, leading to violent responses on their part. That fuels violence in response. Things are not quite to that level yet in the United States, but we can see the possibilities being present, especially with a President who has a penchant for anti-Muslim talk (despite his love for the Saudis). With fear running rampant, and attempts being made to limit Muslim immigration, how should Christians respond?

                There are Christians who want to welcome everyone with open arms, while others fear that too many Muslims will corrupt Western culture. This is a common theme in Europe, where Muslims make up a greater proportion of the population than they do here in the United States, where Latino immigration has been a bigger target. In Europe, polices of tolerance and openness has led to right-wing backlash. For Christians the question is not one of tolerance, but of hospitality. How hospitable should a nation be? And are their limits to hospitality? Further, one needs to ask the question, from a Christian perspective, does hospitality rule out evangelization of Muslims? These are not easy questions to answer, and Christians have taken a variety of positions ranging from full embrace to exclusion.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Christ’s Priestly Work - A Sermon for Lent 5B

Abraham and Melchizedek 

There were Greeks who came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They went up to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and they said to him: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (Jn. 12:20-21). As we continue our Lenten Journey, with Palm Sunday on the near horizon, is this not our request as well? Don’t we wish to see Jesus?

The author of Hebrews introduces us to Jesus in the form of the great high priest who sympathizes with us in every respect. Hebrews tells us that Jesus has been tested as we have in all things, but is without sin (Heb. 4:14-15). Priests serve as mediators between God and God’s people, bringing sacrifices, prayers, and supplications to God on our behalf. No one takes up this responsibility unless God issues a call, as God did with Aaron and Aaron’s descendants. 

God called Jesus to be our high priest, but he isn’t a descendant of Aaron, which makes him a different kind of high priest. According to Hebrews, he is a priest according to the “Order of Melchizedek,” who is  a priest forever. As our high priest according to the Order of Melchizedek, “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:20-25). 

Friday, March 16, 2018

Treating the Divine in Science Fiction - Sightings (Ada Palmer)

As a Star Trek fan, I have witnessed the discomfort of that series with the divine. Religion is present, but in in affirming the pluralistic nature of the universe, there is an attempt to explain the supposedly miraculous scientifically. Only on Deep Space 9, does the spiritual play a significant role. I haven't read/watched schience fiction as widely as some, and I can find it difficult to separate sci-fi from fantasy (Star Trek versus Star Wars), but I find this to be an intriguing conversation. With that in mind, I invite you to read this post by University of Chicago history professor and sci-fi writer Ada Palmer. I would be interested in hearing how others enter into the conversation about science and theology in terms of science fiction. 

Email us
Treating the Divine in Science Fiction
By ADA PALMER   March 15, 2018
Babylon 5 (Warner Bros.)
Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final installment in our series on religion and science fiction. Be sure to read the first three issues in this series: Audrey Thompson's "'Cross'-examining the Biblical Witness in War for the Planet of the Apes" (October 19, 2017), Emanuelle Burton's "Deus ex Machina" (November 9, 2017), and Rebecca Raphael's "Parable of the Times" (January 24, 2018).
This column contains some spoilers for Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Babylon 5 (1993-1998), Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995-1996), and Too Like the Lightning (2016).

Treating the divine in science fiction presents a subtle writing challenge, often invisible to those who haven’t considered the question from a writer’s perspective. Using religious imagery, comparison, or metaphor is easy: from surrounding Superman with Christological imagery in Man of Steel (2013) to Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film Ghost in the Shell quoting “through a glass darkly” in order to encourage viewers to take a providential and eschatological view as we watch the advent of purely digital life born from the manmade sea of information. But fiction can also deal with the divine directly—actual miracles, actual gods, actual intervention—and this, counterintuitively, is where the freedom of science fiction to invent fantastic technologies and improbable lifeforms makes the writer’s job harder.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Finding the Center

When I set up this blog, I engaged in more political speech than I have lately. In large part that is because our political discourse has gotten so course and divisive that I find it difficult to enter the conversations. I don't mind a good argument, but when the debate leads to demonizing others, I can't enter in. But I feel the need to say something, especially on the heels of yesterday's student demonstrations and Tuesday's special election. The student demonstrations give me hope, but I fear that other forces will seek to domesticate their voices. Nonetheless, there is hope in their message.

Here is where I stand at this moment. I believe in the American system of governance. It is not perfect, but it has stood the test of time and severe challenges. I believe the system is currently facing a time of testing. I pray that it will hold, though partisans left and right have stretched the bonds of our system to an almost breaking point. I will confess that my political instincts and partisan registry is that of a left of center Democrat. I have been of this persuasion since my seminary days, though I grew up in what I perceived was a moderate Republican household in a state that tended to produce moderate to liberal Republicans like Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall. I long for the days when the two parties were not so sharply divided, even as I pursue positions that will be construed as liberal or progressive. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Down and Out in Catholic Ireland - Sightings (Martin Marty)

Irish and Catholic Priest seem to go together so naturally. It almost seems as if a priest should be Irish, and for decades Ireland exported priests to the United States. That may be coming to a close as Ireland becomes increasingly secular and it produces fewer and fewer priests. Of course, Protestants face our own struggles with few congregations who can support full time clergy, and a decreasing number of candidates for those positions. In this episode of Sightings, Martin Marty takes a look at the situation in Ireland, with thoughts about America as well. I invite you to read and consider the message.

Email us
Down and Out in Catholic Ireland
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 12, 2018
St. Patrick's College, Maynooth | Photo Credit: William Murphy/Flickr (cc)
I used to teach with or alongside Emmet Larkin, University of Chicago expert on the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, motivated in part to understand Chicago Catholicism, which still numbers a couple hundred thousand people. Larkin wrote much and tutored me as I attempted to learn about, e.g., the Catholic seminary in Maynooth, north of Dublin, the largest seminary in Christendom at the time. How is it doing now?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Covenant of the Heart - Lectionary Reflection for Lent 5B (Jeremiah 31)

31 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
                Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God will make with Israel and Judah. It won’t be a covenant written on stone. It will be a covenant written on the heart. Christians have embraced Jeremiah’s message of the New Covenant, believing that this promise was fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (the earliest version of that institution), we hear Jesus declare: “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:25; see Lk. 22:20).  In the Book of Hebrews, which interprets the ministry of Jesus in the light of Jewish precedent, we see several references to the New Covenant, with the emphasis being on the way in which this new covenant replaces the earlier covenant. So, consider this word: “For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.  Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established” (Heb. 9:15-16). It is this reference in 1 Corinthians and the accompanying references in Hebrews that lead to the labeling of the Christian-specific portion of the Bible as the “New Testament.” It is within the pages of the Christian portion of the Bible, that Christians have seen themselves encountering the one who writes the new covenant on hearts rather than stone.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Bible in a Disenchanted Age (R.W.L. Moberly) -- Review

THE BIBLE IN ADISENCHANTED AGE: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith. By R.W.L. Moberly. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018. Xvi + 217 pages.

How should we read the Bible? While it is an ancient book, it is also foundational to the belief systems of two religions and influencing a third. This collection of writings which call Scripture emerged in what we might call an enchanted age, but we read it today in the context of a disenchanted age. Questions are constantly raised about its historicity, reliability, and authority. Millions continue to regard it highly, but how should it be read? Should we read the Bible as we would any other book? If we do, what should be the basis of that reading? What kind of book is it? After all, we apply different rules to fiction and nonfiction genres.  Standing in the midst of this discussion is whether we can hear a word from God emerging from the pages of this ancient book. As a preacher, I have an interest in the way we answer these questions, because each week I stand in a pulpit and base my message in what I read in that book.

R.W. L. Moberly, professor of theology and biblical interpretation at Durham University in Britain, takes up these questions. While affirming the premise that we should read the Bible as we read other books, he asks a further question that too often we neglect to pursue. That question is, if the Bible is read like other books, on what basis do we privilege it?

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Created for Good Works -- A Sermon for Lent 4B

2017 Ramadan Iftar Dinner Program

Ephesians 2:1-10

Why do we do the things we do? Is it nature or is it nurture? St. Augustine didn’t know anything about genetics, but he stood on the nature side of the equation. John Locke might not have known about genetics either, but he believed we are blank slates on which society writes. To be honest, they’re probably both correct. Whichever side we choose, we all know that bad stuff happens. This is our world, but does this world define who we are? 

The word we hear in the Ephesian letter tells us that once we were subjects of the “ruler of the power of the air,” but now we are seated with Jesus in the heavenly places. Because we’re seated with Jesus, we are recipients of God’s “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Chaos - Sightings (Martin Marty)

It does appear that we live in an age of chaos. It has been noticed that the White House is a rather chaotic place, but it's not just the White House. In this essay, Martin Marty, who last week spoke of cultural disintegration, speaks of chaos. He begins the homily with a reference to Genesis 1:2, where we're told that God presides over and brings order to chaos. In other words, there is hope for people of faith that God will bring light into the darkness that is chaos. The question is, where will this light be found? I invite you to read and consider Marty's suggestions!  

Email us
By MARTIN E. MARTY   March 5, 2018
The Iris Nebula (NGC 7023)
Three Hebrew words—tohu we bohu—show up in the second verse of Genesis, describing the moments or aeons during which “the earth was without form, and void.” God, it is announced, took care of that scene by creating light and all that followed. But the biblical books and our experience testify to the fact that forms of formlessness and the voided condition remain with us. A recommended translation of tohu we bohu, for use by headline-writers and others today, is “chaos.” As spouse and I read our four daily papers, listen to radio and television, and open our mail and email, we remark to each other that “chaos” seems to be “the word of the week,” or “year,” or “our times.” Alert to its presence, one finds it describing much of today’s politics and government, arts and crafts, left-ness and right-ness in culture, personal behavior, et cetera.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Wrath, Rulers of the Air, and Salvation - Reflections on Ephesians 2:1-10

Note: This reflection is an excerpt of my Ephesians Participatory Study Guide (Energion Publications). Ephesians 2:1-10 is the epistle reading for the 4th Sunday of Lent. Perhaps this might be of help. Perhaps this excerpt will stimulate interest in using it as a Bible Study resource.

The Children of Wrath

The central message of this chapter is the contrast between the old life before Christ and the new life in Christ. Readers are reminded that before they were in Christ they were dead in their sins and trespasses, because they had lived in a world ruled by the “power of the air.” As Gentiles they had lived in darkness, beholden to false religious practices and beliefs. They were, therefore, “children of wrath.” It is clear from the opening lines of this chapter that the audience is Gentile. As such, they had lived apart from God, alienated from their creator. Their former state was one of disobedience marked by doing that which is wrong, though the nature of these offenses are not yet revealed to the reader. The offenses themselves, however, flowed forth from their status as children of wrath. It was their nature, so that they lived their lives driven by passions and desires of the flesh.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Patience—Or a Lack Thereof - A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 4B

Brazen Serpent - Giovani Fantoni -
Mount Nebo, Jordan

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

By the fourth week, the Lenten journey could be getting old, especially if you’re fasting (I’m not). Many churches try out things they don’t normally do during the season (we’re using a prayer of confession and words of assurance in worship), which means that some in the church might be ready to get back to the status quo or move on to the next thing. After all, by now the stores are filling up with Easter paraphernalia.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Christian Women in the Patristic World (Lynn Cohick & Amy Brown Hughes) -- A Review

CHRISTIAN WOMEN IN THE PATRISTIC WORLD: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifty Centuries. By Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017. Xxxviii +292 pages.

Christianity, like most religions, has been dominated by men, even if a majority of adherents are women. While this is true, there have always been women who have made their mark on the expansion and development of the faith. The question is, how do we bring signs of this influence to light? Where should we look? In the case of the Patristic era of the church, that is the first five centuries of its existence, women left quite few traces of their influence. There are martyr stories, theological writings, and artwork, to name a few examples. Too often, however, we have ignored the evidence. Fortunately, there have been historians and theologians, who have taken the time to unpack the evidence and bring it to our attention. Such is the case with Christian Women in the Patristic World. I find it interesting that the title includes reference to the “Patristic world,” acknowledging the male dominant context from which these stories are extracted.

Christian Women in the Patristic World is the product of the labors of Lynn Cohick, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, and Amy Brown Hughes, assistant professor of theology at Gordon College. These two scholars have done an excellent job bringing the stories of important women who left their mark on the Christian faith. In contrast to some scholars, who have cast a wider net to take in representatives from non-orthodox movements, they have chosen to focus on women who would have been considered theologically orthodox, and who were active agents in the development of the Christian faith. Thus, one will not find discussion of Gnostic texts or even of the Montanists. What they want to do is look "at women of various regions, backgrounds, situations, and temperaments from the earliest centuries of Christianity and remembering the many ways they assumed authority, exercised power, and shaped not only their legacy but also the legacy of Christianity" (p. xxv).

Sunday, March 04, 2018

The Power of the Cross - A Sermon for Lent 3B

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

“Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore his sacred name.” We sang these words this morning as we began worship. “Lift High the Cross” is a powerful nineteenth century Anglican processional hymn. Apparently, it was inspired by Constantine’s vision that invited him to conquer his enemies under the banner of the cross. However, the version we sang is not as militaristic as some of the other hymns I grew up with. Maybe you remember singing on a regular basis: “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.” Or maybe you enjoyed singing: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross; Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss. From victory unto victory His army shall He lead, Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.” These last two hymns are no longer in our hymnals, because they offer us more of Constantine than Jesus, even if we may remember them fondly. 

These hymns of my youth were popular because they supported a vision of Christian mission that set out to conquer the world in the name of Jesus. They were written during the height of European colonial expansion. Where empires spread, the cross went forth as a sign of Western civilization. Not only did the cross proclaim Jesus, it served as a sign of imperial conquest in the name of the Christian God.  

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Behold the Love -- A word of grace from the Cross

Sunday I will be preaching from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. The title of the sermon is "The Power of the Cross." In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul is addressing a community divided. He offers a different vision of the church, one rooted in the message of the cross. The only problem is that the cross appears to be foolishness. To the wise of this world, why would anyone want to follow someone who died on a cross? What kind of God did this Jesus represent? Of course, we have turned the cross from a sign of foolishness to a sign of power. I will take this up in the sermon, but as I was writing the sermon I "stumbled" upon a hymn written by Barton W. Stone, one of the founders of my denominational tradition. Stone did not embrace the reigning penal substitutionary atonement theory. He expressed his vision of the cross in a hymn found in the Chalice Hymnal. (Chalice Press, 205).  I plan to make use of the fourth stanza of the hymn, but thought I might share the full hymn, so we might reflect upon it as we continue our Lenten journey from the Wilderness to the Cross. 

How might the cross be a sign of God's love? 

Behold the love, the grace of God,
displayed in Jesus' precious blood;
my soul's on fire, it yearns to prove
the fullness of redeeming love.

The cross I view--O wondrous love!
My sins expire, my fears remove;
my native enmity is slain
I'm reconciled--I'm born again.

Our God is love--O, leap, my soul!
Let warm hosannas gently roll!
Love gave a Son to save our race,
and Jesus died through sov'reign grace!

What love has done, sing earth around!
Angels prolong the eternal sound!
Lo, Jesus bleeding on the tree!
There, there, the love of God I see!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Cultural Disintegration -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

Are we experiencing a season of cultural disintegration? Are we tending toward cynicism and skepticism? Is this a new phenomenon? Perhaps not. In this essay the esteemed chronicler of our times the historian Martin Marty points us to the words of a famous theologian of a previous era, who had something to say about his time that might speak to our time. I won't name the theologian. You can read and ponder his words.

Email us
Cultural Disintegration
By MARTIN E. MARTY   February 26, 2018
Photo Credit: Welsh photographs/Flickr (cc)
“Cultural disintegration” is a useful description of what commentators and publics consistently witness these years. Left and right, liberal and conservative, male and female (etc.), old and young, all observe and chronicle the signs of it. The historian in me prompts the question: are there precedents for such an outlook? The answer, of course, is “yes,” but it becomes interesting only when we turn to specific cases. Here is my favorite analysis, by a theologian who points to four signs.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Latino Protestants in America (Mark Mulder, et al) -- A Review

LATINO PROTESTANTS IN AMERICA: Growing and Diverse. By Mark T. Mulder, Aida I. Ramos, and Gerardo Martí. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Xii + 206.

Having lived in Southern California for a good portion of my life, I am well acquainted with the significant presence of Latinos in the United States. While one might expect large numbers of Latinos to live in a state that borders Mexico, the fact is, Latinos are spread across the country. These are our neighbors who hail from lands across the Caribbean, South and Central America, Mexico, or who trace their ancestry back to the earliest days of European presence in North America. Yes, our Latino neighbors might be new immigrants, or they may trace ancestry back to the sixteenth century. Latinos make up the fastest growing demographic in the country, and despite stereotype they’re not all Roman Catholic.

I normally review books provided to me by publishers. In the case of this book, I purchased a copy at a conference because I was going to attend a session that featured the three authors. I decided to review the book on the blog because I believe this is an important book addressing an important conversation within our country and our denominations. Personally, I am interested in this conversation because I have Latino friends and colleagues, and I once served a congregation that hosted and continues to host a Latino Protestant congregation. I even had the opportunity to preach for them. My sermon was translated into Spanish a few sentences at a time. One thing I noticed is that a goodly number of the congregation understood me without any translation. I have also noticed the growing numbers of Latino Disciples congregations in Southern California and elsewhere, marking one of the few growth areas in my denomination. Whereas, when I was ordained in 1985 there were just a handful of congregations that were Spanish-speaking, now the largest church in the Pacific Southwest Region is a Latino congregation. Finally, with the immigration debate consuming significant oxygen in our political discourse, it might be worth our time to not only to consider what the growing Latino population means for the United States, but how the growing numbers of Latino Protestants will influence Protestant churches going forward.