Monday, February 19, 2018

The Myth of Equality (Ken Wytsma) - Review

THE MYTH OF EQUALITY: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2017. 216 pages.

We live in strange times. We hear conversations in certain circles about white privilege, while in other circles we hear complaints that white men face discrimination. Which is it? Standing at the center of the last Presidential election was the claim that the white working class was being ignored. The same arguments undergird the current immigration debates. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged after the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer, many White Americans responded with a declaration that “All Lives Matter.” While this response sounded egalitarian, it failed to acknowledge that in our country the powers and principalities have valued white lives more than black and brown lives. We may have elected a Black President in 2008 and again 2012, but it’s clear from the rhetoric of the hour that we are not living in a “post-racial society.” In fact, even today we are living with the legacy of decisions made decades ago that privileged European-Americans over Americans from other regions of the world. Unfortunately, these patterns of discrimination, segregation, and racism have infected the church as well as the rest of the culture.

So, what should Christians do about the realities of our society? That is the question taken up in The Myth of Equality by Ken Wytsma, a White Evangelical minister and educator living in Bend, Oregon. Wytsma wrote this book because he sees unacknowledged white privilege infecting the white evangelical community. He is the founder of The Justice Conference and President of Kilns College and wrote this book at the request of an editor at InterVarsity Press who heard him address privilege in a speech. I am glad that the IVP editor made the request, because this is an honest and compelling look at a problem that will not go away. Indeed, my own denomination has pledged to be an “anti-racism, pro-reconciling” church. All clergy are required to receive anti-racism training. I’m glad the training is required, but it does suggest that even in a more liberal Mainline denomination with a General Minister and President who is African-American that problem still exists.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Making an Appeal to God -- A Sermon for Lent 1B

1 Peter 3:13-22

We began our Lenten journey on Wednesday by having our faces marked with ash as a sign of repentance and re-commitment to being Jesus’ disciples. This morning we hear a word from 1 Peter that invites us to share in Jesus’ life and ministry. The letter mentions baptism, making a defense of our faith, the suffering of the cross, and the resurrection. Each of these elements mark the life of Jesus’ followers.  

There is a lot going in this brief passage. It’s rich with theological content, which we can’t unpack in one sermon. So, I’m going to focus on the better story, which we have been given, and which Peter calls on us to share with the world. 

Before we move into Peter’s message, I would like to share the word from the Gospel of Mark that ushers in the season of Lent. As you’ll hear, Mark doesn’t waste time on details:
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  (Mark 1:9-15 NRSV)

Friday, February 16, 2018

A Lament for Parkland

I have not posted on the shooting in Parkland, Florida that left seventeen students, teachers, and staff dead until now, because I really had no words to offer. I grieve with those who grieve. I grieve with mothers and fathers, with sisters and brothers, with wives and husbands, with friends and with acquaintances, but I have no prayers or thoughts to offer. I decided to break my silence this morning. I wanted to share a Psalm of Lament. Nothing I read really expressed my feelings. Psalm 23 offers comfort and Psalm 22 expresses abandonment. I don't know of Psalm 12 speaks to the moment either, but it does seem to catch the feeling that "the faithful have disappeared from humankind." I know there are no easy solutions. I know taht there will be trade offs if changes are made to our laws that might restrict some "rights." But are not the lives of our children worth it?  So, I offer this Psalm as a sign of my frustration, my anger, my grief. 

I believe that God is love. While I struggle with this premise, I believe that God's love is non-coercive and uncontrolling, which means that if God is going to do something, God will do it in partnership with God's people.  We pray that God will do something, and God reaches out and says -- Join me. Are we willing to do so, or will we continue to let the vileness of violence define our humanity? So, I offer this lament, in memory of those who died and in solidarity with those who survived this latest attack on those whom God loves. 

Help, O Lord, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
    the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
They utter lies to each other;
    with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips,
    the tongue that makes great boasts,
those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
    our lips are our own—who is our master?”
“Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
    I will now rise up,” says the Lord;
    “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
The promises of the Lord are promises that are pure,
    silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
    purified seven times.
You, O Lord, will protect us;
    you will guard us from this generation forever.
On every side the wicked prowl,
    as vileness is exalted among humankind.  [Psalm 12 NRSV]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Faith and Enlightenment in Dark Times - Sightings (Martin Marty)

As a historian, I have studied how faith intersected with the Enlightenment -- the British Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Enlightenment as a movement emerged as Europe tried to emerge from more than a century of conflict. The Enlightenment gave birth to the Modern Age, of which we are heirs. For some Enlightenment and faith cannot coexist. Martin Marty, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the Martin Marty Center offers a response to one writer who sees faith and Enlightenment as incompatible, offering his hope that one can embrace both. I invite you to read and while you read, may we all give thanks for the long witness of Martin Marty. 

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Faith and Enlightenment in Dark Times
By MARTIN E. MARTY   February 12, 2018
Steven Pinker at the Strand Bookstore, New York City, in 2011 | Photo Credit: jmm/Flickr (cc)
Tomorrow, Viking will publish Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, from which The Wall Street Journal ran an adapted excerpt on Saturday. To counter the profound gloom which is both fashionable and understandable these years, Pinker presents graphs and data which deserve to be reckoned with by fair-minded people. His conclusion is provocative, as anything by Pinker is likely to be. An excerpt from the WSJ excerpt:

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Practicing Piety - A Meditation for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We have come here today to have our faces marked with ash, as a sign of our piety. We’re doing this, even though Jesus tells us not to practice our piety to be seen. After all, God can see our hearts and our actions, even when we don’t make a big display of our spirituality. Nevertheless, we have come today to mark our piety with ash.

Jesus takes up the question of practicing piety in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells the crowd that when you give offerings, pray, and fast, make sure no one is looking. If you’re going to fast, then wash your face. If you’re going to pray, do  it in your closet. If you’re going to give offerings, well, don’t make a big deal about it. Don’t wave your envelope so everyone can see and don’t ask for a plaque to mark your gift. Just give, because God sees and God rewards.

Ash Wednesday is the Day of Salvation

2 Corinthians 5:20-6:10 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, 
“At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
    and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” 
See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.

Today Christians across the globe will observe Ash Wednesday. This year, the day on which we allow our faces to be marked falls on Valentine's Day. How romantic is that? For those of us who choose to share in this observance that begins the journey of Lent, we may decide to forgo Valentine's Day. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Divine Repentance? Lectionary Reflection for Lent 1B (Genesis 9)

Genesis 9:8-17 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”


We begin the season of Lent, a season of introspection, confession, repentance, and absolution, with the story of Noah and the Flood. In the lectionary reading from 1 Peter 3, the author of that letter refers to the story of Noah, seeing in it a prefigurement of baptism, which serves as an appeal to God for a clean conscience. Thus, there is a connection between the letter and this word from Genesis. I’m preaching on the 1 Peter 3 text on Sunday, but in this reflection, I’ll leave aside the baptismal allusions, and focus on the covenant made with creation, and God’s seeming sense of regret at washing away life from God’s creation.

I titled this reflection “divine repentance,” because I see in this reading a bit of remorse on the part of God regarding the actions taken, along with a promise to not go this route again. Passages like this serve as a reminder that in the biblical story God is known to have a change of mind. The idea that perfection requires unchangeability doesn’t seem to be part of the biblical view of things. So, in some ways this the story of God’s repentance as well as offering us a word of hope that such an event will not take place again.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Rebel in the Ranks (Brad Gregory) -- Review

REBEL IN THE RANKS:  Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape our World. By Brad S. Gregory. San Francisco: Harper One, 2017. 292 pages. 

The big celebrations of the beginnings of the Reformation may have come and gone. October 31, 1517 has been chosen as the starting point for the Protestant Reformation. This means that on October 31, 2017 many marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or more specifically the date on which Martin Luther allegedly nailed the Ninety-Five Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle. Whether this is historical fact is a matter of debate, and probably irrelevant. The point that needs to be made is that when Luther published this broadside, he set in motion a movement that soon spiraled out of his control (if it ever was in his control). What is important to note is that Luther’s break with the Roman Catholic Church set in motion events that continue to impact the world today.

As is often true at the time of anniversaries of momentous events, a spate of books was published in 2017. These include a number of new biographies and monographs dealing with the life and legacy of Martin Luther. Some are better than others, and thus we must be discerning in our reading choices. Brad Gregory has written an intriguing book that starts with Luther but doesn’t end there. In fact, only one chapter is focused directly on Luther, though he will appear in other chapters, but not necessarily as the focus. Luther is the catalyst but not the controller of a movement that quickly fragmented. Why did it fragment? Well, when scripture is made the only authority for doctrine and practices, human beings will quickly come up with differing interpretations. Such is the case here.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Light of God Unveiled - A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

The Light of the Word by William Holman Hunt -
Keble College, Oxford. 

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

We began the service by singing:

Shine, Jesus, shine
Fill this land with the Father's glory
Blaze, Spirit, blaze
Set our hearts on fire
Flow, river, flow
Flood the nations with grace and mercy
Send forth your word
Lord, and let there be light.

With this song we ushered in our celebration of Jesus’ transfiguration.  Transfiguration Sunday brings the season of Epiphany, the season of light and revelation to a close. The Gospel of Mark tells us how Jesus took Peter, James, and John on a hike up a mountain. When they reached the summit, the three disciples watched with amazement as Jesus’ whole being was transformed. His appearance radiated dazzling light, and his clothing was brighter than bright. But that’s not the end of the story. Before they knew it, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet joined Jesus on the mountaintop. While these three figures—Moses, Elijah, and Jesus—converse, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove from a cloud that envelopes the mountain. Then a voice from heaven proclaims: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (Mark 9:2-8).  

I don’t know whether the reading from 2 Corinthians is rooted in the transfiguration story, but it’s clear why it was chosen for the lectionary reading for Transfiguration Sunday. The Transfiguration story  speaks of divine revelation. It speaks of the light of God that shines into the darkness. Paul declares in verse 6: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6 CEB). When Jesus is transfigured, his countenance, his face, shines forth a brilliant light, revealing the glory of God within him. This is the light about which Paul speaks.  

Thursday, February 08, 2018

The Great Notice-er -- Sightings (Kenneth Woodward)

This post, written by former Newsweek Religion writer Kenneth Woodward, notices the one he calls "The Great Notice-er," Martin Marty. I often repost Marty's columns from his Sightings essays. This month, the University of Chicago Divinity School, sponsor of the Martin Marty Center, is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the Martin Marty Center, the publisher of Sightings, and Martin Marty's 90th birthday. I found this essay especially relevant to the person of Martin Marty. I've been reading him for more than thirty years, starting with his columns in the Christian Century. I've also had two opportunities to actually converse with him. Not only did I find him personable, but interested and knowledgeable about things relevant to my own life. He is an amazing man, whose ability to notice is beyond description. Woodward's essay highlights all of this, and invites us to notice the notice-er, and give him his proper due. 
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The Great Notice-er
By KENNETH L. WOODWARD   February 5, 2018
Martin E. Marty (center) with other attendees at a 1974 exhibition on “The Tradition of Aquinas and Bonaventure” | Credit: University of Chicago Photographic Archive, apf3-00909, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library
Editor’s Note: This month the University of Chicago Divinity School celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the Martin Marty Center and the ninetieth birthday of Martin Marty. Marty would say that our focus ought to be on the Center, not on him, and for the most part it is. However, Marty has also observed that part of the mission of Sightings is to help “interpret the interpreters” of religion in public life, and for the past half-century and more there has been no more notable interpreter of religion in American public life than Martin Marty. So we took the occasion to put together a series of reflections on Marty’s contributions to the public understanding of religion, from authors who are themselves leading interpreters—whether in academia or in popular media. Here is the second, with others to follow.
In his ninety years, Martin E. Marty has doffed many professional hats: pastor, professor, author, peripatetic lecturer, columnist, and occasional reporter. But I think of him principally as the greatest notice-er I’ve ever met.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Reflections on Disciples of Christ Theology - The Series

The Stone-Campbell Movement claims to be non-creedal. It is a tradition that prizes freedom, though not all would agree to the extent of this freedom. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination to which I belong and serve as an ordained minister, is one branch of a larger movement born on the American Frontier at the turn of the 19th century. It proclaimed God's desire for unity among Christians on a platform that called for a restoration of the ancient order of things. That is, a return to a New Testament order, that the founders believed could be discerned by Christians who were willing to let go of their creeds and practices that were not authorized in Scripture. We Disciples have largely moved away from strict restorationism, while still seeking to advocate for unity. While prizing this freedom to explore theology for ourselves, some of us are concerned about the level of our theological conversation. With that in mind I began work on a primer for theological discussion. This is my own work. It carries no official designation. No church leader has given their imprimatur as to its orthodoxy. But then it's not meant to be an official statement, but rather a foundation for a conversation. Below you will find links to each of the postings I've made over the past several months, beginning in September of 2017 and concluding with a vision of God's future on February 5, 2018.Someday all of this might end up in a book! In the meantime, just click on the links below, and join me in conversation!

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Into the Whirlwind - A Lectionary Reflection for Transfiguration Sunday (2 Kings)

2 Kings 2:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.” 
Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.” 
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground. 
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 
13 He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.


                We have come to the end of the season of Epiphany. The day of Transfiguration is at hand. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus takes three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John on a journey to the mountain top. As they arrive on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured (metamorphized), his countenance changes, and his clothes become a dazzling white, “such as no one on earth could bleach them,” revealing the glory of God present in him. Then, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the prophet gather with Jesus on the mountain-top. Jesus engages in conversation with these two paradigmatic figures from the Hebrew Scriptures. While the nature of the conversation is not revealed, I’m sure it wasn’t idle gossip. Whatever the nature of their conversation, it is interrupted by another voice that emerges from a cloud that suddenly appears around them. The voice declares of Jesus: “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him” (Ml. 9:2-8). Standing alongside Peter, James, and John, how might we perceive the meaning of this event? They seem not to understand. Do we?

Monday, February 05, 2018

Disciples and Eschatology Part 3: The Future of Hope

Note: This is part three of a conversation about eschatology. With this series of posts I bring to a close a conversation about Disciples of Christ theology, what I hope is the foundation of a book on Disciples theology for use in churches to stimulate theological conversation.

                Although the various millennial viewpoints disagree as to the time line of the kingdom, all affirm that at some point the kingdom of God will be established in its fullness. With this linear view of history in place, the end of history is not seen negatively, but is seen as more a transition to something else in God’s economy. Therefore, the future holds out for us the promise of God’s hope. Our hope for the future is, as Jürgen Moltmann asserts, found in Christ, and our remembrance of him, including our remembrance of his death and his resurrection. 
The present and the future, experience and hope, initially clash in Christian faith. Between them is the remembrance of Christ crucified by the powers of this world. It is only beyond the cross that we can see the first daybreak colors of God’s new world. This means that Christian hope is a “hope against hope,” or a hope where there is nothing left to hope for. [Jürgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope.  Margaret Kohl, trans., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pp. 89-90.]  
As Christians, whatever we say about the future must be seen in line with what has already happened in and through Christ’s death and resurrection. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection of the people of God is contained in Christ’s resurrection. He writes: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Paul suggests that the time of the resurrection of those who belong to Christ awaits the coming of Christ (1 Cor. 15:23). Thus, even as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we do so in the hope of our own resurrection.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

All Things to All People - A Sermon for Epiphany 5B

Mr. Gray's Forest Service Truck

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

It’s not easy being “all things to all people,” but that’s what St. Paul wanted to be. He felt an obligation to preach the gospel in a way that would meet people where they’re at. Being all things to all people, isn’t easy, which might be why Paul was having problems with the Corinthian church! They were too many things, and he was only one person. 

This morning we’re taking a moment to give thanks for members of our community who have answered a call to serve. In many ways First Responders, whether police officers, fire fighters, or emergency medical technicians, have to be “all things to all people.” They might respond to help a person experiencing a heart attack in the middle of the night or maybe fetch a cat up a tree. They may sit with a person who is grieving or face a dangerous situation. Whatever the situation, they find themselves in a position of service to others.

Before I go any further with this sermon, I need to give a disclaimer. I’m going to do something I don’t normally do. That is, I’m going to use the reading from 1 Corinthians 9 as a pretext, as a jumping off point, to speak about something that isn’t even hinted at in this letter. So, while I don’t think Paul had First Responders in mind when he wrote this letter, I think there is a word of blessing here for First Responders. So, with this disclaimer, I will apply Paul’s declaration that he is “all things to all people” to our First Responders, who are called upon to serve and protect all the people in the community, whether residents or guests. 

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Barth in Conversation, Volume One (Karl Barth) -- A Review

BARTH IN CONVERSATION:Volume 1, 1959-1962. By Karl Barth. Edited by Eberhard Busch. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. Xviii + 310 pages.

It has been fifty years since the death of Karl Barth. Despite the passage of time and the expanding horizons of theological conversation, Barth remains a central figure in contemporary theological conversation. While he is best known for his massive Church Dogmatics and his boundary breaking Romans Commentary, perhaps one might best encounter him in more informal modes. Years ago, I read through two volumes of published letters, including a volume of letters passed between him and Rudolph Bultmann. Now, in what is said to be the first of three volumes, we encounter Barth through transcripts and reports of conversations held with him between 1959 and 1962. By this time, he was in his 70s, and by his own admission an "old theologian." What we have here in this volume is an opportunity to encounter Barth the person, often in unfiltered ways.

The book is edited by his former student and biographer Eberhard Busch, who is the Professor Emeritus of Reformed Theology at the University of Göttingen, Germany. The conversations recorded here range from visits with prison chaplains to groups of American theologians during his several American tours. For my part, I was most interested in the conversations held during those American visits.  Since he learned English as early as the 1930s, he was very conversant in English, which enabled him to engage in direct, unfiltered discussion. At times these conversations are profound and theologically revealing, while at other moments Barth can be quite humorous.