Thursday, November 23, 2017

All Good Gifts -- A Thanksgiving Blessing

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

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Introverts in Worship

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture Attribution: Verboeckhoven, Eugène-Joseph, 1798-1881. Shepherdess with Her Flock, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved November 20, 2017]. Original source:,_A_Shepherdess_with_her_Flock.jpg.

Monday, November 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Wise Investments - Sermon for Pentecost 24A/Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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