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August 28, 2008

Useless


by Joel Shuman
(Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28) A good friend who teaches Theology at a seminary in another part of the country likes occasionally to begin his new classes with the pronouncement that “God is useless.” As you might expect, this assertion is usually not well received by the pious young women and men on the other side of the lectern, who find it shocking, offensive, and even blasphemous. My friend anticipates these reactions, of course, and I suspect he enjoys his students’ outrage (All of us professors have a bit of the ham-provocateur in us.). But he does not assert God’s uselessness simply for the shock value. The claim that God is “useless” is among the most important truths of Christian faith, and one of the central messages of this morning’s Old Testament lesson.

The story the passage tells is a familiar one—so familiar, in fact, that it tempts us to inattentiveness. Make no mistake about it, though: there is a lot going on here, and most of it is radically important to a proper understanding of the God of the Bible, and so to a life devoted to following that God.

We might think of the passage as a scene in a theatrical production. The dramatis personae are three: There is on the one hand Moses, who was enjoying a prosperous anonymity as the son-in-law of Jethro, the priest of Midian. Considering he had come to Midian on the lam, things had turned out pretty well for Moses; he had a new wife and a good job and was positioned to inherit a lot of wealth some day. One the other hand we have God—that is, the God of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who has to this point in the production been a shadowy, mysterious presence who tends to show up when he’s least expected. And finally, in the background—a few miles to the south and west, actually—we have the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the end of the previous scene we learned that the Hebrews are in a bit of a tight spot; for the past 400 years or so they have lived in Egypt, first as expatriates, but more recently as slaves. The Egyptians, we are told, are not kind to their slaves.

The setting for the scene is the wilderness of Midian. Moses is working, tending the flock of his father-in-law near Mount Horeb (which is probably another name for Mount Sinai, although no one knows for sure) when he notices something … well, unusual. There is a bush, and it’s on fire, but the fire doesn’t appear to be doing anything to the bush. It just sort of hovers there. And Moses, predictably enough, feels the need to get a better look. As he approaches the bush (just imagine what that looked like), the flame begins to speak. More, the flame doesn’t just ask Moses how he’s doing; it identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors—the God to whom the Hebrews had recently begun to call out, asking for deliverance from their oppression.

It is at this point that we get the critical element in all good drama: conflict. I am not referring here to the emerging conflict between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, although that is very much in the background. I am talking instead about the “debate” that transpires between God and Moses. After God has identified himself, he tells Moses why he’s there. He has a job of work that needs doing, and Moses, he reckons, is just the man for that job. The cries of the Hebrews have reached God, and God needs Moses to be God’s prophet, to go back to Egypt and to confront the Pharaoh and tell him that God wants him to free the Hebrews, whom God identifies here (for the first time) as “my people.” (Make a note of that—it’ll be important a bit later).

Here’s where we get the conflict: Moses doesn’t want the job. And really, who can blame him? He is, after all, just an “average Mo” for whom things have fortuitously broken the right way: he had a clever mother who saved his life when he was an infant; he was adopted into and grew up as part of the Egyptian royal family; he literally had gotten away with murder; and then he had married the boss’s daughter. He has a peaceful, well-to-do existence which will be seriously disrupted by God’s plans. Why should he give up everything to return to a country where is already persona non grata to lead a slave rebellion against the most powerful government in the world?

To which God replies, quite simply, “I will be with you.”

“O—kaayy” says Moses, “but who are you, anyway? I mean, what’s your name? If I go to the Hebrews and tell them that the God of their ancestors has sent me to lead them out of Egypt, don’t you think they’re gonna want some ID? Wouldn’t it help my street cred if I could drop your name on ‘em?”

This is where things get really interesting. Moses’ desire to know God’s name, it turns out, is not just small talk, nor is it just a way of avoiding the bigger issue. In the historical context in which this text is set, “What’s your name?” is no inconsequential question. The peoples of the ancient near east, most of whom worshipped the various tribal gods of their ancestors, believed that knowing and using the names of those gods lent to the user a share of the gods’ power. Thus to know a god’s name was to have a measure of protection from his or her frequent and sometimes violent capriciousness and to possess the capacity to use that capriciousness against one’s enemies, who presumably would be the enemies of one’s god(s), as well (This is why the Decalogue prohibits making inappropriate use of God’s name. That prohibition is against cursing, not in the sense of cussing, but in the sense of “putting a curse” on someone. God’s people are forbidden to do this because it is a way of trying to use God, another name for which is idolatry.) Anyway, Moses has good reasons for wanting to know the name of the deity who confronts him in the bush. Not only is the specter of a strange god speaking through a bush that burns but is not consumed sufficiently terrifying to move him to grasp for whatever trace of control over that god might be at hand, but the prospect of being sent by that god on a dangerous mission against a formidable enemy inspires him to accumulate of an arsenal sufficient to complete the job. Moses figures if he knows God’s name, maybe he can put a divine whammy on the Egyptians and he and the Hebrews can escape with their hides intact.

God’s response to Moses’ query is elegantly simple; it is also loaded with irony. To Moses’ query, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The god of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God answers, “I AM WHO I AM.” The Hebrew here—a word regarded by the Jews as so holy that it can neither be spoken aloud nor written down—is sufficiently ambiguous to lead the reader to wonder whether God might be engaging Moses in a bit of verbal sparring. God’s admonition to Moses to tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you …. This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations” could be read simultaneously as a refusal by God to play Moses’ game and an assurance that the identity of the God speaking from the bush renders the question irrelevant. God is telling Moses that he is an altogether different kind of deity than the Egyptian gods of Moses’ childhood or the household gods of the surrounding tribes. The God who speaks to Moses from the bush can in no way or for any cause be used, but who is also without caprice and therefore absolutely trustworthy. God’s is absolutely wild, but his faithful presence with (and for) Israel is nonetheless assured, not because Moses possesses the power that goes along with knowing God’s name, but because God, whose character is steadfastly and unconditionally to love his creation, has freely promised it. Israel can therefore be certain that regardless of whatever difficulties face them in their efforts to depart Egypt, I AM will remain their God and ultimately will secure their redemption. God will henceforth be known to Israel first of all by this signal act of liberation; that is, as the wild, uncontrollable God who against all odds delivered them out of Egypt and established them as God’s holy people, not because they possessed a secret formula that enabled them to use God’s power, but because God loves them and keeps his promises.

The God with the unusual name is useless precisely because he is wild. God cannot be used. But God makes himself present to the world through God’s people, whose name is Israel and the Church. This means that the people of God can be used, but only by God, for it also means that the people of God are called to be wild—rather like God is wild. Another name for that wildness is holiness. In this week’s Epistle lesson Paul admonishes the church in Rome to be different, to offer their bodies as a sacrifice to God, to allow God to transform them, in effect to allow God to make them wild. Paradoxically, it is becoming wild like God that the people of God become useful in the service of God.

What does that wildness look like? It is a wildness that rejects self-interestedness and instead operates through the practice of self-giving and forgiveness. It is a wildness that loves enemies and prays for persecutors and refuses to take revenge. It is a wildness that turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile, a wildness that eats with tax collectors and sinners, a wildness that recognizes God in the faces of the sick and the poor and the disenfranchised—those living in nursing homes and lying in hospitals, those who live as dumpster divers and bar flies and junkies and whores—and is willing to go where God is. It is a wildness that says “no thank you” to a way of life based on bigger salaries, bigger houses, and successively more expensive cars, a wildness that gives without thought of receiving, a wildness willing to risk being with the poor and disenfranchised, and so also to risk becoming poor and disenfranchised. It is a wildness that looks up from the daily grind and gazes expectantly at the eastern sky, waiting patiently and faithfully for the Kingdom of God.

God cannot be used, but God can use us, especially as we let God makes us wild. The wildness to which God calls us does not simply happen; it requires our working together to cultivate a way of life that can be sustained only as we encourage and support each other. Most importantly, it is a wildness that is sustained by our mindfully, faithfully, and regularly gathering around this altar to eat the bread and wine that by God’s Spirit become his very flesh and blood. What could be wilder than that? The God who rules the world from the burning bush and the manger and the insurrectionist’s cross shows up whenever we gather, giving himself to us, nourishing us, renewing our minds, making it possible for us, it we are willing, to see the world through his wild eyes. Thanks be to God.


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August 23, 2008

Immigration and the Hebrew Midwives


by Debra Dean Murphy
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Matthew 16:13-20

"For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other." - Thomas Paine, 1776

“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them.”- Exodus 1:17

In a class I used to teach called “Women and the Bible” my students and I would examine the Exodus story of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, as one in a long line of narratives about female tricksters. Through their wily and inventive ways, these women and others like them (Rebekah, Tamar, Rahab, Michal) carry out the purposes of Yahweh and extend the fortunes of Israel. They may not possess any real authority in the patriarchal world they inhabit but these clever women do wield remarkable power.

Shiphrah and Puah (the names did not roll trippingly off the tongue for my students or for me) are summoned to appear before Pharoah, the king of Egypt, who is nervous about the high fertility rates among the Hebrew people he has recently colonized.
In this strange and rare encounter between royalty and lowliness, the king directly orders the midwives to kill any male child born to a Hebrew woman. That’ll slow down the out-of-control growth of this crazy-fruitful people, he reasons.
But the midwives, we are told, “let the boys live.” Summoned again to explain themselves, Shiphrah and Puah spin quite a tale: the Hebrew women are so “vigorous” they birth their babies before we can get there!

In our conversations these last couple of weeks on immigration (see previous post), the “rule of law” is regularly brought up. Indeed, the concept is often a brick wall in such discussions because it seems to nullify all subsequent points (though we’ve managed to keep talking—so far). It’s the trump card in the immigration debate, whether it’s played first or last: If some of these folks are here illegally, the argument goes, then we (Christians) must respect the power of the state to deal with them as the law-breakers they are. End of story.

But of course it’s not the end of the story in the biblical witness. What Shiphrah and Puah undertake (at great risk to their own safety and well-being) is to defy a power that does not—cannot—claim their primary allegiance. It is to their God, Yahweh, not to the Pharoah-King, that they are ultimately accountable—this God who has made them part of a people called to bear testimony to the fullness of life and health and abundance that God desires for the whole world.

In the gospel lesson this week, Jesus gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom. Can we imagine that those keys unlock for us, the Church, the power to restore, to reconcile, to make new; the power to bind us in love and fellowship to the alien among us, and to loosen our grip on the false gods of security and status that keep us estranged from one another?

Can we imagine that those keys might even unlock our hard hearts?


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August 18, 2008

Immigration & the Crumbs from Our Table


by Debra Dean Murphy
"You speak of signs and wonders / I need something other / I would believe if I was able / But I’m waiting on the crumbs from your table. (“Crumbs From Your Table,” U2, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb)

It’s become something of a tradition: I start a conversation via email with a large distribution list I have, made up mostly of fellow church members but also including some far-flung friends and colleagues. Often, I share my bLOGOS reflections on the lectionary or make a plea for help with a project or program; sometimes I simply direct folks to an interesting website or blog. The point is not to court controversy for its own sake, but sometimes the topics and the ensuing conversation take us into complex social, political, or theological issues where the moral murkiness can be difficult to navigate.

In last week’s email I shared my concerns about the increasingly aggressive tactics by local law enforcement agencies to target undocumented immigrants in our town and in nearby communities. I noted, with barely-contained outrage, that an ICE agent (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had visited our church office, inquiring about the Guatamalan pastor who leads the Hispanic church that meets in our building. (The week before I had inquired if anyone would be willing to hire one of the church’s members as a housekeeper; we later learned that the woman’s husband is being deported. That situation also fueled my sense of urgency regarding the “immigration issue” in our particular context).

In my email I indicated our denominational stance on immigration, which is, in part, that local churches are “to welcome, assist, and empower the refugee, immigrant, visitors, and undocumented persons in their neighborhood, and to denounce the persecution of the sojourner in the U.S. as prejudicial and racist.”

I was prepared for an avalanche of responses and I got them. (Note to self: When you send out a strongly-worded email just before going to lunch, be prepared for a stuffed inbox when you return).

But I was not prepared for the passion and compassion that oozed from those emails, for the eloquence, the compelling personal stories, the unequivocal insistence that our church stand as a witness with the persecuted sojourners, that we not only talk the talk on this matter but that we walk the walk. And even when disagreement was voiced (or typed), when counterpoints were made to my and others’ points, there was a level of openness and generosity in the opposing viewpoints that still moves me.

I’m not naïve. I know there was some grumbling behind the scenes, and not every sentence shared via email was devoid of stridency. But to begin this important conversation with the kind of thoughtfulness and goodwill evident in our exchanges is itself a moral achievement. Or perhaps it’s a gift we can’t even take credit for. Either way, we began—just began; long way to go—a conversation about something that lays on the line in very real terms the cost of Christian discipleship.

Some say that such “virtual” conversations are just that: artificial, illegitimate, without depth; that genuine dialogue cannot take place in cyberspace; that the anonymity afforded by the internet precludes community and communal accountability. There’s some truth to this. I’m a regular at enough blogs to know that people often talk past each other in an effort to one-up their perceived opponent.

But in our case, there’s no real anonymity. The emails are not sent blind; everyone can see who receives them. No one responds with an invented handle but with their real name. Even more importantly, the person you disagree with may be the one who serves you communion on Sunday or who teaches your child’s Sunday School class.

Maybe that’s why we’re careful with each other. We know that an ill-considered word uttered (or, again, typed) in the heat of the moment can be hard to take back—especially when we’ll be teaching VBS together or working side by side in the community garden. But I think we also know that we can risk real disagreement because our unity is not derived from the need to agree on everything, but from our oneness in Christ—a oneness that we don’t create but that we are invited to participate in every time we gather in Christ’s name; every time we baptize or share the Eucharist or proclaim the gospel.

All of this came full-circle on Sunday morning as we listened to the appointed lesson from Matthew. The Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter. “Have mercy,” she pleads. With an insensitivity that startles us, Jesus refuses, calling her, in essence, a dog. But her clever comeback—“even the dogs eat the crumbs”—and her persistent faith win Jesus over and he grants her wish (Mt. 15:21-28).

Like this foreign woman, our mostly-Latino sisters and brothers, documented or undocumented, are asking for crumbs, and still we begrudge them. But like Jesus, we are being converted: we are learning that, as Matthew announces by placing this story between the two feeding narratives, there’s enough bread for everyone. More than enough.

During the course of our email conversations on immigration, my friend Les sent me the prayer copied below. Les and I disagree on many things. But we keep talking—in person and online—trusting that, because of our unity in Christ, our differences need not divide us.

O God, in whose one Gospel all are made one,
let not your saving work fail in the broken order of Christendom
because we have failed to understand your message.
Prosper the labors of all churches bearing the name of Christ
and striving to further righteousness and faith in him.
Help us to place the truth above our conception of it,
and joyfully to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit
wherever he may choose to dwell in human beings;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
- Charles Henry Brent (1862-1929)


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August 12, 2008

Ethics After Pentecost


by Tobias Winright
 
According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we are now gathering to worship on Sundays during the Season after Pentecost, which is also often referred to as Ordinary Time even though the Scriptures for Sunday, August 17th (Roman Catholic lectionary) are full of extraordinary, even quite surprising, tidings. Another name for this season is Kingdomtide, and I would like to suggest that these Scripture passages are about the kin-dom that God desires to happen on earth as it is in heaven. That is, the common thread running throughout these readings is that God's salvation essentially involves hospitality, compassion, and justice for all peoples--including, unexpectedly, those who are "other." The story of salvation is not only Israel's story; rather, the ongoing narrative seeks to gather others into it as well. Put differently, these passages of the Bible show how God is at work in the world, through the people of Israel and through the church, gathering the scattered—a sort of a reversal of what happened at Babel.

The passage from Isaiah refers to the restoration of the people of Israel after years of exile in Babylon and how the new era of shalom will include the foreigner. God's holy mountain is to be a place where all peoples are gathered to pray and worship God, but as Isaiah and other prophets also noted, such sacrifices are to be accompanied by doing what is right and just in daily personal and social life--especially for the anawim (the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the strangers in our midst). Psalm 67 further highlights how the good news for Israel is to be good news for all nations to the ends of the earth. This major theme carries over into the New Testament, as well.

The community for whom the author of Matthew's Gospel wrote probably consisted primarily of Jews who had become Christians, but who were also becoming distinguished from their fellow Jews at the time by including non-Jews, or Gentiles, who were regarded by many Jews at the time as "unclean" and beyond the pale of God's salvation, among their number. Thus the story of the Canaanite woman who persistently implored Jesus to heal her daughter aimed at affirming what the early church was doing. In granting her request and praising her great faith, Jesus was making what was said in the passages from Isaiah and Psalms become a reality in their midst. Likewise, St. Paul, "the apostle to the Gentiles," writes to the Romans reassuring them that while Israel remains dear to God, they too are included in God's endeavor to gather the scattered. Thus the church is called to continue what Jesus had done and what the passages from the Hebrew Scriptures had pointed to: our worship and, correspondingly, our personal and social lives after we are sent forth to "go in peace to love and serve the Lord" (“the liturgy after the liturgy”) should reflect how the ongoing story of God's salvation includes not only "us" but also all others, in particular those we perhaps least expect.

That is, rather than an ethics after Babel (the title of a wonderful book from several years back by Princeton’s Jeffrey Stout), the church ought to be practicing and embodying ethics after Pentecost. One of the highlights of the Mass at our inner city parish for our three-year-old daughter, Clare, is the passing of the peace. Indeed, she has been known to greet others outside of Mass and during the week with “Peace” when they extend their hand to her in greeting. No matter what toy she is playing with, or what snack she is eating, she will suddenly become an active participant in the liturgy when she shares Christ’s peace with others—and by “others” I mean any others: young or old, black or white, male or female, gay or straight—in our general pew vicinity. I am thankful that she already believes that what she experiences of God’s inclusive hospitality during worship at our parish is the norm, or how things are and how they are supposed to be there and everywhere. Because of this, she will hopefully not have to unlearn many of the prejudices that I’m still working on unlearning. Who are today's "Gentiles" that we ought to be welcoming and treating with justice and compassion?


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August 08, 2008

Rocking the Boat


by Debra Dean Murphy
I’ve been following a blog debate over at www.theolog.org between a scientist of some sort, hostile to religion generally and Christianity particularly, and a pious defender of the faith. In my view, neither has been very impressive in articulating his case against the other, and the back-and-forth accusations and “gotcha’s” and outright vitriol have only escalated as the debate has gone on (and on and on). I tried briefly to weigh in on it earlier this week, calling for a little charity and humility from both sides, but, like a sister trying to pull her two brothers off each other in a backyard brawl, I was roundly ignored. Lesson learned.


The gospel text from Matthew 14 this week strikes me as the kind of passage over which science guy and defender guy would go at it, arguing past each other all the while—as they have been doing all week. The ghostly Jesus walking on the water is too much for the rationalist to take in; it’s laughable, even—easy pickins. The mocking denial of such an archetype biblical image of Jesus (and the sacrosanct truth it represents) is scandalous to the defender’s deeply-felt piety. You can almost hear defender guy quoting Jesus back at his opponent: “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” (14:31). Disagreement. Accusation. Counter-accusation.


Impasse.


What to say about such a text when there are probably many science guys and defenders guys (and gals) in our congregations? Whose side does the preacher take?

I hope I’ve given some indication of how futile such a side-taking exercise is (which I know you already know). One thing seems clear: since biblical writers never seem particularly interested in exploring or explaining the mechanics of Jesus’ miracles, we should probably check our own such preoccupations at the door. For Matthew’s audience, it’s probably Peter’s fear (and, by extension, the fear in each of us) that he wanted to deal with. And if, as some scholars suggest, the boat in the story stands in for the church (the ark of salvation), it’s interesting to wonder where an exploration of verses 32-33 might take the preacher.

It’s in the epistle lesson for this week (in the Revised Common Lectionary, not the Lectionary for Mass) that we’re given an illuminating word about lack of belief—about how to treat those, like science guy, who reject Jesus. Romans 10:5-15 is part of a larger set of material in which Paul struggles to articulate the place of Judaism in the new Jesus movement. Through his own internal debate and his wrestling with scripture, Paul concludes that God has not abandoned his promises to Israel; God remains faithful to his covenant people.

While Paul does indicate that there are those who have, for now, missed the boat, all is not lost. “The same Lord is Lord of all” (10:12). It’s ultimately by resting in the mystery and sovereignty of divine love, a love made incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, that Paul comes to trust in a God who saves and who will save.

It’s a big boat.


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August 05, 2008

The Most Segregated Hour in America


by Brian Volck
While longer on sociology than theology or ecclesiology (what can one expect from the news industry?), a recent CNN story on the difficulties inherent in integrating churches resonates with much said at the recent EP gathering.


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August 04, 2008

Getting Small

by Kyle Childress
About the time I was in college, young comedian Steve Martin had a routine called “let’s get small.” Playing on the mid-seventies countercultural “let’s get high” Martin invited everyone to come to his house and “get small.” Martin said that “getting small” was dangerous for children because they would get “really, really small” and it was also impossible for the police to put you in jail for being small because you’d walk out right between the bars. It was a short, quirky piece of the sort that made Martin famous.

If it was countercultural in 1977, “being small” is even more so in 2008 in a culture that seems to idolize the Big and encourages everyone to “get big or get out” as a Secretary of Agriculture once told farmers. Some years ago Molly Ivins characterized the city of Dallas as the city with Big Buildings, Big Hair, and a Big Jesus. Dallas thought she was paying them a compliment. But even we like living in Big Texas and our society admires Big Business and trans-national corporations, mega-churches, and mega-plexes. We want Big Answers and Big Solutions to Global Problems and we want to super-size everything from fries to storage buildings to football stadiums. Politicians and economists of every persuasion keep telling us that a bigger economic pie is the answer to everyone’s concerns. Closer to home, every day I receive mailings and emailings on how to grow, be bigger, reach more people, raise massive amounts of money, train more people, build bigger buildings, have a bigger sound system, a bigger music program, a bigger youth program, get a bigger church van, where to order a bigger pulpit, or how I can get a bigger Bible with larger print (okay, so I’m keeping that one). In other words, bigger is always better; it is a sign of blessing and success, and if we’re not getting bigger then something is wrong.

Behind these invitations to “get big” lie more alarming assumptions. For example, I also receive more than the occasional letter urging me to join with other clergy, or other churches, in order to stop something in our country or get something done in our town or organize to get someone elected. The underlying and unquestioned assumption is that it is the vocation of the church to run things in our society or at least that we have the size and power to make things come out the way we want them to if we’ll just organize, work, fund, vote, and get involved. Furthermore, if we’re too small to have the leverage to run things then we can use any number of the resources listed above so we can get big.

When we open the New Testament and read Jesus the contrast is startling. He talks about mustard seeds, sparrows, lost coins, and lost sheep. Instead of big productions he washes feet and every time he gathers a big crowd, off he goes to be alone. Instead of seeking power he seems intent on giving it up. And about the closest he came to defining a church is “two or three gathered in my name.” It seems Jesus was interested in getting small long before Steve Martin made a joke about it.

So maybe we need to raise questions about bigger being better. Perhaps we should be questioning whether the church is supposed to run things and whether it is good that the church always needs to grow larger. Maybe it is time to question many of these assumptions and maybe a small church like ours can be one of those who does the questioning. What if God’s Way is manifested through ordinary people doing little acts of grace like sharing bread, asking forgiveness, and being peacemakers? In an empire enamored with “shock and awe,” a capitalistic economy consumed with growth, and American Christianity preoccupied with success, what if the calling of the body of Christ, the church, is to “get small”?

When we come to terms with being small and get over trying to be big, we can be free to trust God rather than our own power and size, and we can be empowered to get on with what God wants us to be about. With help from theologian John Yoder, here are some examples:

We do not assume that we are to dominate our town or the wider society. As followers of Jesus, our mission clearly becomes one of servanthood, healing, and reconciliation, the kind of ministry that works best from positions of powerlessness and humility.

We can do mission and ministry as “pilot projects.” There are needed ministries that the wider society is not yet ready to attempt for any number of reasons (they’re too controversial, people are not yet convinced of the need, etc.) but we are able to start. In our own church’s history, we started the Sheltered Workshop, the East Texas AIDS Project, and the Nacogdoches Habitat for Humanity before many others got involved. Eventually, each of these endeavors was adopted by larger groups and organizations here in East Texas.

We are freed to speak out and practice what we believe is the truth of the gospel even though the wider majority does not agree. Sometimes a small church can act in the same way the conscience acts in the life of an individual. For instance, the Quakers spoke out against slavery 80 years before slaves were freed in this country.

We learn to trust the power of weakness. A small church can be innovative and imaginative. We can approach problems from a different posture and perspective from those with power who tend to approach problems with a direct frontal assault.

We learn to see the weakness of power. Sometimes too much power is an obstacle to our calling. Tanks and bulldozers can get in the way of washing feet and giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’s name.

I am not suggesting that large churches are not the body of Christ. Indeed, I know that the best large churches are built around small groups. I’m also not suggesting that we shouldn’t do outreach and invite others to the Way of Jesus. The fact is that we could grow a lot and still be a small church. All I’m suggesting is that Austin Heights is part of a long history of God working through the small, the humble, the weak, and the odd. Instead of worrying over not being big, let’s embrace the wonderful gift God has given us and thank God for being small.

Let’s be careful out there.


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August 01, 2008

Tasting Death, Tasting Life


by Debra Dean Murphy
(Matthew 14:13-21) Immediately before the story of the feeding of the five thousand is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the crowds fed on the beach with bread and fish (a detail unique to Matthew’s version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John’s demise. Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and ultimately the plated head to her mother. That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew’s gospel (recall also the women who appear in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter one) is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas’ 1990 essay from Theology Today.

Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s murder) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. John’s death is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed; where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. Herod’s birthday party is an occasion for the casual disregard of human life to come to a head (forgive the pun) in the expedient execution of a troublemaker. And while this blood-tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand represents the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children).

But abundance in the biblical sense is not gross excessiveness. The twelve baskets of leftovers should not be understood as justification for our tendency to accumulate and hoard; rather, they are a reminder that in God’s economy there is always more to share, more to give—and yet the “more” comes not from our own meager reserves but from God’s endless supply of goodness and generosity. And in the sharing and giving of what God graciously offers to us we ourselves are transformed.

I think of a line from Frederick Buechner: Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed—the selfless love of God and neighbor—is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.

We know this from our experience of the Eucharist, which is never a private meal for me, but is instead that moment when what is taken, blessed, broken, and given (Mt. 14:19) becomes the occasion for the gathered church to understand its very life as gift; to know that the love of the triune God is what makes us who we are and therefore what makes it possible for us to bear witness to that love in a world where the crowds are hungry and there is (seemingly) only a little bit of bread and fish on hand.

Source
Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (Harper, 1993), p. 5.


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The Metaphysics of Discipleship


July 25, 2008
by Halden Doerge
Perhaps the recurring issue in discussions of Christian discipleship regards simply whether or not it is something that Christians should think they can actually do. Not long into the established church's history the notion became prominent that the ethics of Jesus, particularly as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and other prominent texts in the gospels (cf. Luke 6:17-46; 14:15-34), simply cannot be done by people who live in the real world. They are rather "counsels of perfection" which are either only for a specific clerical or monastic caste (as in Medieval Catholicism) or they are simply there to remind us all of our complete inability as sinners to conform to God's commands (as in Luther and most of Protestantism after him).

Now of course this whole discourse of perfection, impossibility, and the real world is problematic on numerous levels. If you want to see them all blown out of the water, just read Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. However, here I want to focus on at least one underlying issue that informs how we even imagine the shape of any discussion about discipleship. The first thing to be observed is that, no matter what, whenever we read Jesus' Sermon on the Mount we all have a sense of its radical hardness. Even if we believe it is possible, we know its not very likely. However, if we avoid lifting these discourses of Jesus out of their narrative context, things get more interesting. Jesus seemed to think the very opposite in regard to the message he was preaching: "Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:28-30).

In Jesus' view, the call to discipleship that he was preaching was not something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind. Jesus seems to think that discipleship is easy, and that by contrast it is restless striving of the Gentiles and the burdensome commands of the priestly elite that is hard (cf. Matt. 6:32; Luke 11:46; 12:30). In other words, Jesus viewed his call to radical discipleship in a way that is exactly opposite from how we view it when we encounter it. What is to us an impossible demand that must have some other explanation is for Jesus the call to anarchic liberation from the dominating forces of slavery and death.

What I want to suggest then, is that the call of Jesus to discipleship is not merely a moral call to a really, really difficult way of living for the sake of becoming virtuous. Rather it is a call that fundamentally challenges the conventional metaphysics of violence whereby we construe the entire shape of the cosmos. The call to discipleship is a call to nothing less than a counter-metaphysics which suggests that it is in fact supremely difficult to live in this world as a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer. As Stanley Hauerwas has rightly remarked, becoming a liar is a substantial moral achievement. Practicing these acts are what is hard; they are what put us at odds with the shape of the cosmos. Truth-telling, confession, the love of enemies, and the sharing of possessions are not, according the metaphysics of discipleship what make for a difficult life. Rather they are the true shape of human life which, if entered into constitute a cessation of striving against the grain, of kicking against the pricks. In other words, it is the case, as John Howard Yoder said, that "people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe."

None of this is to suggest that discipleship will simply take no effort. The world, which we have come to know in Christ as ultimately bearing the shape of resurrection rather than final death, remains a contested place. The powers of death and slavery continue to rage against the Lord and his Messiah. However, the shape of the universe has been constituted anew in Jesus' resurrection. As such it is those powers and the lives of slavery that attend them that are ultimately out of place in this world. It is lives of sin, violence, and indifference that are ultimately futile and unattainable.

Because Jesus has been raised, his love, which completely defined the shape of his life is inexhaustible.

His love has been terminated by death and yet it still lives. If this is the case then there is no boundary that can threaten the victory of that love. If this is true then the only actions in this world that are ultimately possible, that ultimately will not be undone are the actions of radical discipleship, that is to say, the actions of radical love.

If we wish to push this line of inquiry to its furthest point, we might even dare to say that only the kind of life that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount is ultimately possible. Such is the sort of description that coheres with the metaphysics of discipleship and resurrection.


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Shrubs and Kingdoms


July 23, 2008
by Debra Dean Murphy
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” -- Matthew 13:31-33

It has often been pointed out that when Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a shrub, he is having a bit of fun with us. But finding the humor in the Bible isn’t something we overly-serious modern readers are very good at. We’re more likely to treat parables like this one as if they were folk-wisdom formulas for personal or group success. Think about sermons you’ve heard on finances (“your small gift, sown in faith, will produce a big return!”) or church growth (“if we’re faithful, God will make us grow!”).

This kind of life-application theology is well-received in our age of motivational-style preaching, but it is a betrayal of these texts’ deeper meanings and contexts.

Biblical theologian Ched Myers contends that the seed parables in the gospels illustrate vividly the struggle to make a living by dry farming the rocky soil of Galilee. And if the land’s unsuitability for agriculture were not challenge enough, wealthy landlords always extracted enough of the harvest to ensure that the farmer remained indentured to the land, strangling any prospects he might have to achieve even a modicum of economic security.

Against this backdrop of despair and injustice, the promise of abundance—and its fulfillment—is stunning, and amounts to nothing less than the “eschatological overflowing of the divine fullness, surpassing all human measure.”

This agrarian eschatology, as Myers calls it, has a specifically subversive function. The shrub that is the mustard plant in this parable is a deliberate lampooning of the great and mighty cedar tree, used by the prophet Ezekiel as a symbol of foreign domination. The birds that came to nest in the shade of the cedar’s branches (Ezek. 17:23) stand in for the alien oppressors that Ezekiel condemns as the epitome of imperial hubris.

In Jesus’ parable, God’s kingdom is like a shrub, a nuisance weed, really:an out-of-place, hard-to-control horticultural threat to the large, orderly garden that is empire. Not on a par with empire, though; not in any way comparable to its size, strength, or agenda; and not, alas, what many of Jesus’ followers would have wanted to hear, victims as they were of Rome’s imperial hubris.

Imagine being told that the kingdom you had been hoping for, that your ancestors had been praying for all these generations was not, in effect, a mighty cedar or majestic cypress, but was instead a scrubby weed that insinuates itself into its surroundings, altering the landscape, spoiling the environment. (We southerners might think of Kudzu here).

Then imagine being given new eyes with which to see this strange kingdom. Notice the birds in Jesus’ story: The birds which would normally have dedicated themselves to eating up any available seed now rest in its branches. Here is one of Jesus’ little “time bombs” (James Alison’s phrase), for what Jesus is bringing to existence, says Alison, “is something which will even be capable of offering hospitality to those who would have been its principle enemies.”

God’s ways are not the ways of empire;the way of the kingdom is the not the way of domination, retribution, scarcity, and enmity, but of shalom and abundance, of reconciliation and restoration.

We are told in Matthew’s version of the parable that the shrub did indeed grow to become a tree—a miracle in itself, given the plant’s less-than-impressive botanical properties. (In Mark’s version, the mustard plant remains a shrub, perhaps revealing something about that gospel writer’s concern to preserve the utter strangeness of the parable and indeed of the kingdom of God).

But in growing the shrub to the stature of a tree, perhaps something is being communicated to Matthew’s audience about hope. As Myers puts it: “The disproportion between the seed and the mature plant is meant to instill courage and hope in the small and fragile discipleship community for its struggle against the entrenched powers.”

For those who will consider this parable in worship this week, it’s worth remembering that it is something of a holy joke: our hope lies in something as seemingly unimpressive as a pesky weed. The absurdity of it all! But the coming kingdom Jesus proclaims depends on such foolishness, for the cross and resurrection toward which all the parables point and on which they all depend, have the final word and the last laugh.

Sources

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll:Orbis, 1988), 177ff.

James Alison, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination (Crossroads, 1996), 81ff.


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Imagining the Road We Share


July 22, 2008
by Brian E. Volck
A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. -- Isaiah 40:3 (NIV)

“I’ve been to conferences on race and racism before, but this is different,” I was told several times at this summer’s Ekklesia Project gathering in Chicago. I agree. There was far less nonsense and posturing than I’ve endured at previous, allegedly “frank” discussions of race. We spoke, sang and worshiped together, without the “It’s a Small World After All,” ceremonies that suggest a few up-tempo songs will make restitution for centuries of bad theology and worse ecclesiology. The mood steered a difficult course between penitential and determined.

And that’s how I’ve felt since returning to my home church, my day job, my pleasantly uniform neighborhood: penitent for much I have done or failed to do, determined to serve (to the degree I am called) as a means, however small and faulty, of reconciliation. But how do I bring the gift that was this summer’s gathering home? How do I rescue this promising start from the death of deferred good intentions? And yet, having seen and heard how difficult the road to racial reconciliation can be, how do I continue?

I can’t do this alone – it’s crucial to steer clear of that “do-it yourself” trap. We, the church, got ourselves into this mess, and together – as we are led by the Spirit – is the only way we’ll ever get out. But what shared practices must we learn on our way to that place where we can worship every Sabbath together, washed clean of ecclesial vice? Prayer will help, of course, as will penitence and fasting. The vow of continued conversation is essential. The importance of imagination, hard work and hope can’t be underestimated. What am I leaving out? I need you to tell me.

In the wilderness of racial division which the church has so long tolerated, I can’t see the road ahead, nor am I even sure I see the destination, but I know with whom I’ll be traveling. I’ve seen your faces as we shared a meal, heard your voices as we sang in worship, touched your feet as we served one another. Help me imagine what’s ahead. Help me see the highway.


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Gathering Gifts


July 19, 2008
by Debra Dean Murphy
It’s been more than a week since the Gathering ended and my head is still swimming and my heart is still full. There is always so much to take in when we meet each summer for conversation, worship, learning, and fellowship.

I traveled to Chicago this year with three good friends from my church—new endorsers of EP and first-time Gathering attendees. These friends—Judy, Chris, and Greg—were overwhelmed by all they encountered (in the best possible sense of that word) and we continue to talk about what we experienced, hoping that our own transformed thinking about matters of race and racism in the body of Christ might come to bear good fruit in the ecclesial context in which we find ourselves.

One of the things I like about the format of the Summer Gathering is that we always have persons (often “outsiders” to EP who become fast friends) who put “flesh and bone”—real practical import—to the ideas and insights we hear in the formal plenary/lecture sessions (which were themselves, this year, extraordinary). It was a gift to listen to the stories of New Life/Nueva Vida Mennonite Church (Norristown, PA) and Rock of Salvation Church in Chicago. Leadership at New Life/Nueva is shared equally among three pastors who minister to this congregation made up of Anglos, Hispanics, and African-Americans. Such an arrangement “is not effective,” said one of them, Brother Ertell, only half-joking. But it is a sign of the church’s commitment to the hard work of racial reconciliation in the body of Christ.

I was struck by how matter-of-fact the approach to racial reconciliation is in both of these churches: no anxious hand-wringing, no endless “task-forcing” of the issues. Instead, they conveyed, with humor and humility, a clear-eyed honesty about the challenges facing multi-ethnic congregations and a sense that this way of being/doing church is not an option but an obligation—yet one undertaken with joy and a sense of hope about what God is up to in their midst.

Three days of intense focus on a difficult topic can leave one, as I said above, more than a little overwhelmed. We can begin to think that the problem of racism in the body of Christ is an intractable one. We can slip into thinking that we can do nothing or that we have to do everything. God save us from such despair on the one hand and such arrogance on the other. May we rest in the truth (but not rest on our laurels) that the work of reconciliation has already been accomplished. It is our task and our joy to live into the fullness of that truth and to bear witness to it. I thank all of my EP sisters and brothers—old friends and new friends alike—for the gift of that reminder last week.


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Fasting Against a Divided Body


July 11, 2008
by Brent Laytham
One of the great joys of our EP Gatherings is eating together. We break bread with friends old and new, discovering at a common table our common life in Christ. That makes it all the more painful that many of us who endorse The Ekklesia Project cannot come together as one body at the Eucharistic table of our Lord. Several years ago, we spent an entire Gathering exploring that pain.

This year our Gathering explored another division that scars the body of Christ—race. Both visibly and invisibly, race and racism have divided us from sharing together at our Lord’s one table. Confronting that reality for three days has renewed my commitment to the Friday fast that EP endorsers commit themselves to. Heretofore, I have fasted because that’s what Methodist pastors do, and because it was a simple practice of solidarity with my sisters and brothers in The Ekklesia Project. But now, committed to “Crossing the Divide,” I am also fasting as a practice of judgment—judgment against my ongoing racism, judgment against our racially segregated churches, judgment against every failure to receive what Christ has already done—broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14).

Today I fast, not just to be in solidarity with you all, but especially to hunger for the full unity of Christ’s church.


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Behold, How Good & Pleasant


by Brian E Volck
If you mourn the splintering of Christianity, if you pray that all may be one as Christ and the Father are one, and especially if you, in whatever Christian tradition you worship, yearn for a strong ecumenism in which Christians speak from the heart as the Holy Spirit guides them, refusing to merely paper over substantive differences, then there’s something you must hear.

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, liturgical pit bull of Catholic traditionalists in America, has a podcast recording of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew I reciting the Greek text of the 381 Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed together. (You’ll have to scroll down through lots of white space on the link to reach the Greek text itself and the podcast link. The occasion, for those interested, was the liturgy for the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, opening a year-long celebration of the life and ministry of Paul. Patriarch Bartholomew was at the Vatican in part to return Benedict’s recent visit to the Phanar in Istanbul.)

I realize that most Ekklesia Project endorsers are neither Catholic nor Orthodox, a handful at most can follow spoken Greek, and the thought of two patriarchs reciting a creed produced by a council called by Constantine I will strike some as too high church to stomach, but this is a moment of ecumenical history (to my knowledge only the second time this has happened since the 1054 schism), a millennium of division one step closer to healing.

Zuhlsdorf focuses on the wording of the text (The verb “believe” in first person singular, the absence of “and the Son,” and so forth). Other Catholic (see here and here) and Orthodox bloggers seem more taken by the event itself.

What disappoints me, though, is the lack of liberal (“liberal” misses the mark and is something of a category error, I know, but I’m sticking with the vernacular) commentary on the moment. Has the Nicene Creed (or any creed, for that matter) become “so five minutes ago” we can’t be bothered? When the Holy Spirit invites separated brothers to stand and speak together, are we to pretend nothing happened?

(Originally published Monday, June 30, 2008)


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The Binding of Isaac: Gen. 22: 1-14


by Debra Dean Murphy
So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went, / And took the fire with him, and a knife. / And as they sojourned both of them together, / Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father, / Behold the preparations, fire and iron, / But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering? / Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps, / And builded parapets and trenches there, / And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son. / When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven, / Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad, / Neither do anything to him, thy son. / Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns, / A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

"The Parable of the Old Man and the Young," Wilfred Owen, 1920

The Old Testament often gets short shrift in lectionary preaching, but this week’s story from Genesis 22 will likely be the centerpiece of many sermons this Sunday. It’s a troubling tale, raising disturbing questions about ancient child sacrifice, ritual violence, even sadism—Abraham’s and God’s. Our modern incomprehension of the narrative’s chilling details leads us to all sorts of speculation and psychologizing. Some preachers will succumb to explanations tidy, trite, and predictable; others, wisely, will refuse to pronounce a definitive word on the primal mystery that is the story of the binding of Isaac.

But it is our task—as preachers and as lay readers—to wrestle with the hard texts. The challenge, though, is to do this work without assuming that the world of scripture is, as Rowan Williams has said, “a clear and readily definable territory.” That is, we must always allow the Bible to exert its strangeness over us; to be awkward and unwieldy in our hands. We must resist the urge to domesticate its wildness or smooth out its odd incongruities.

And we’re sometimes surprised to learn that it is in art that a story’s “meaning” most vividly comes alive. In Wilfred Owen’s poem about the sacrifice of Isaac, the story’s transformed ending opens us up to the truth of scripture and the truth about ourselves—that we are easily seduced by the false gods of violence and death.

In allowing the Genesis text to offer a word of judgment to the powers that brought on the Great War, Owen’s re-telling of the story puts the same hard questions to us: Can we stop the slaughter of innocents in our own time, the sacrificing of our own children to war and death?

Can we, will we stop the killing?

(Originally published Friday, June 27, 2008)


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Gospel Nonviolence, Untranslated


by Brian E. Volck
I won’t weigh in on the latest election year “religion and politics” silliness involving Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and the Obama campaign except to note that Mr. Obama, who could easily have been much harder on Mr. Dobson, has said what any respectable candidate for the office of Commander in Chief must, namely: “Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal rather than religion-specific values.” (“Universal” in this case presumably means “Early 21st century consumerist North American,” but I may be missing something.)

This in the same story which quotes Mr. Obama as saying the Sermon on the Mount, “…is so radical that it's doubtful that our Defense Department would survive its application.” Right as he may be about that, his campaign has yet to propose anything like an Operation Turn the Other Cheek, so it’s probably safe to say Mr. Obama and his advisors place Jesus’ calls to nonviolence and forgiveness among those religious values in need of translation, doubtless into something uncannily like the military-industrial complex.

I don’t mean to rag on Mr. Obama, who engages in conspicuously less saber-rattling than Mr. McCain, and who no doubt sincerely intends to work for peace, even if the means at his – or whoever occupies the White House come January – disposal are unlikely to deliver it. Nor am I tipping my political hand to hint which way I may vote, if indeed I can bring myself to vote at all this year. If, however, you’re looking to steel yourself against the bowdlerizing demands of Democracy, you might turn to the Center for Christian Nonviolence, including their upcoming Forty Day Fast for Gospel Truth of Nonviolence. The 2008 announcement has yet to hit the website, but we’re told the brochure will look very much like the one used last year.

(Originally published Wednesday, June 25, 2008)


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The Making of Many Books


by Debra Dean Murphy
I oversee a book club in the church where I work. We haven’t come up with a name more descriptive or imaginative than “book club,” so many people assume we’re a lot like the stereotype: women who gather to discuss the latest Oprah pick and drink lots of wine. We do drink wine and share a meal together every time we meet, but no Oprah books for us. And there are men in our group, too. And our members range in age from their early 30s to their late 60s. (One woman in an assisted-living community is a “virtual” member, keeping up with the club through our email discussions; she’s in her mid 90s).

We began the book club almost four years ago with Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name. We invited Tim to our church to talk about race in America and racism in the church, and he regaled us with his storyteller’s wit and challenged us with his historian’s candor about the sad state of affairs in white southern churches. Tim is now something of a local celebrity and Blood is currently being made into a big-time Hollywood movie. We in the book club like to say we knew him when.

From the beginning we’ve imagined membership in the book club to be something of a spiritual discipline—a way to read texts communally; to wrestle with moral questions large and small; to sharpen our critical thinking skills and our powers of observation; to be moved by the beauty and power of language and to share that experience with friends who savor that same, simple joy.

We read widely across genres and we choose our books simply: we nominate favorites and then vote on them, narrowing down to the nine books we’ll read in a calendar year. As the overseer of the club, I have the power to break ties in the voting process and/or distribute the “weight” if we’re tending toward too many titles in the same category. This power has been a lesson in humility for me: I’ve had to read books with this group that I would never have chosen myself (and have learned to keep in check my snobbery about certain kinds of books and authors). But these friends have also humored me by going along with some of my literary idiosyncrasies. We’re all better friends (and more accomplished readers) because we have been willing to read books outside of our preference zone.

Which isn’t to say we haven’t experienced our share of duds. One of Joyce Carol Oates' novels goes down in our collective memory as a real clunker. I’m sure it wasn’t a bad book, but, for us, at the time, it just didn’t resonate. And we’ve also gotten into some heated disagreements over the years. Earlier this year The Wal-Mart Effect touched nerves that brought out defensiveness in some, a little smugness in others (me, especially); the air was pretty thick with tension that night. But we try to see our arguing primarily as a way of clarifying difference, as a way to persuade amiably—not as a battle to win or as a game of one-upmanship. Besides, there’s always too much good food and contagious laughter to stay mad for very long.

June is our last month of the 2007-08 book club season. We take a whole month off and start anew in August. So for the last few days I’ve been reading a book with this cheery title: Grave Matters: A Journey through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial. We’ve joked about this book all year—wondering how we could close out our year on such a morbid note. (My bad: every summer I put the upcoming books in reading order). It turns out, though, that this book about death is really about life, and I am looking forward to a summer evening with friends who, by their willingness month after month, year after year, to read together, eat together, laugh and argue, have made my own life richer and fuller.

(Originally published Saturday, June 14, 2008)


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Third Sunday After Pentecost


by Debra Dean Murphy
What does it mean, I wonder, to hear this week’s appointed scripture texts if you are a Christian in Myanmar or in the Sichuan province of China? What would you make of all this talk of mountains shaking; the sea roaring and foaming; swollen waters on the earth; rain, flood, wind, destruction, death?

Those of us who have never experienced the kind of catastrophic devastation associated with cyclones and earthquakes can too easily romanticize the natural world, admiring only its beauty: a breathtaking sunset, a beautiful beach, a majestic mountain. As modern suburbanites and urbanites we’re happy with our isolation from nature’s wild, unpredictable side—as our neatly landscaped lawns and pretty container gardens make plain. We like nature well enough; so long as we can manage it—so long as it doesn’t try to hurt us.

But the Bible always presents the whole of reality—good and evil; sin and grace; beauty and danger—and this week we are asked to think about such routine biblical themes as corruption, violence, floods, earthquakes, shame, boasting, and foolishness.

We are asked to consider the “reversal of creation” that the flood story from Genesis points to. (The lectionary committee has chopped this passage to pieces, making it difficult to see the whole narrative arc—forgive the pun—and obscuring some of the resonances with elements in the earlier creation stories). Often, the Noah’s ark story is reduced to children’s fare (as the abundance of Noah’s Ark toys and baby bedding indicates) or it is used to test one’s loyalty to a flat, biblical literalism or to creation science. These approaches miss the point altogether, since the story is a parable about how our deep-seated violence grieves the heart of God and how, in being rescued from our violent selves, we can only be saved together.

In the gospel passage, Jesus uses rain, flood, wind, rock, and sand as metaphors in warning of the dangers of a flimsy religiosity. This passage comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount and it’s a captivating conclusion—“the crowds were astounded at his teaching,” we are told. As usual, Jesus is preaching to believers, not to uninitiated outsiders. His words of judgment are for those who already believe they are doing the will of the Father: prophesying in Jesus’ name, casting out demons. But Jesus prophesies their end: “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”

Jesus tells them that there is nothing solid and lasting under the house they’ve built, and when challenges and difficulties arise, when the rains come and the violent winds blow, their rickety structures will collapse like a house of cards. We’re a little stunned to hear this, since their defense sounds a lot like our defense: “But Jesus, did we not do many deeds of power in your name?”

But to “hear these words of mine” is to obey me, says Jesus, and to obey is to risk everything—comfort, reputation, social standing, complicity with the status quo. To hear the words of Jesus and to act on them is to become like him. It is to find our life by losing it. As Bonhoeffer said, “When Christ calls a person he bids that one come and die.”

But it’s not fatalism at work here. For to lose our life for the sake of Christ and the kingdom is to be brought into the ark that is Jesus; it is to be secure on the rock that can withstand the punishing rains and winds—tests of faith, persecution, despair.

To lose our life is to take up God’s desire for peace in the midst of humanity’s continual thirst for violence and war. As this week’s Psalm reminds us: “He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear.” This is not wishful thinking; it is not Niebuhr’s (and others') impossible ethical ideal. Peacemaking—as Jesus makes clear in the Sermon on the Mount—is the will of the Father and the way of his followers, here and now.

In C.S. Lewis’s book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says of the lion Aslan: “Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” That’s the kind of God these texts speak of: not a cuddly deity, not the tame, nice god who just wants us to be nice, but a good God, a righteous King, a God of peace.

The apostle Paul speaks of the righteousness of God in the passage from Romans. Beginning this week we have sixteen consecutive Sundays with this letter. Over that time, Paul will ask us to consider the nature of salvation and the purpose of the law, among other things. This week we are reminded that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” We are justified not by our good deeds but by God’s grace. It is God’s grace, made manifest in the sacrifice of Christ, that makes our lives possible, that makes peace possible.

“Then what becomes of boasting?” Paul asks. No boasting allowed. No calling out, “Lord, Lord, we did all this good stuff in your name!”

No. In the end, we just jump into the boat that will save us from ourselves—from our self-righteousness, from our vain and violent ways. Our salvation lies not in the pious deeds we lay at Jesus’ feet, but in a transformed life that bears witness to the goodness of God.

I don’t presume to know how a Christian sister or brother in Burma or China would react to the lessons this week. But I hope that I am part of a community and that we are part of a community that believes what it confesses: that even though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea, we will not fear; God is with us. I hope that I am part of a community and that we are part of a community that believes in the totality of God’s love—a love that rescues us from the worst of ourselves; a love in which there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; a love we strive daily to imitate, building our house not on sand but on the rock that is Christ Jesus, and acting on his words in the ways that make for peace.

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Disclaimer: The reflections below are fairly scattered thoughts on this week’s lections. They are tentative more than definitive, suggestive of some themes and ideas that need much more development. But maybe there’s something helpful here for those working with the texts for Sunday.

(Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008)


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Strangers and Other Gifts


by Debra Dean Murphy
“Hospitality” is an overused word in our culture. We speak of the hospitality “industry,” a 3.5 trillion dollar service sector of the global economy. “Hospitality management” is now offered as a degree program in most colleges and universities.

For many people, hospitality is exercised primarily as a form of social entertaining: magazines like Southern Living set impossible standards for home décor, flower arranging, menu planning, and so on. The people we invite into our well-scrubbed homes to sit at our perfectly-set tables and eat our carefully-prepared dinners (meant to impress more than to nourish) are usually people of our own socioeconomic status, people pretty much like us. Children are often regarded as spoilers of this kind of antiseptic hospitality and are kept out of sight or off-site. Moreover, this Southern Living (per)version of hospitality makes us anxious, guilt-ridden score-keepers. “Didn’t the Smiths have us over for drinks last month, honey? I guess we’ll need to return the invitation soon, though I really can’t stand that obnoxious husband . . . “

But hospitality as industry/management/entertainment is not the hospitality that Christians are invited to practice. As Beth Newman says, Christian hospitality “draws us into a richer context where we must make sense of ourselves as ‘guests’ and ‘hosts,’ acknowledge our dependence on others, and learn to live with gratitude.”

Christian hospitality assumes that the stranger we may unexpectedly encounter has come to bring a gift because, as another writer has put it, “Christ came to bring unlimited gifts, and Christ was a stranger—and that gift may turn out to be crucial for the maintenance and flourishing of Christian community.”


Such a truth has important, unavoidable, uncomfortable implications for how we in the Church talk about and put into practice hospitality toward the strangers we encounter—immigrants, beggars, and other outsiders who are usually not invited to our Southern Living-style dinner parties.

My own willingness to practice gospel hospitality was put to the test recently. My husband had helped arrange a stateside visit for a Sudanese woman, an Anglican priest, he met on his trip to Africa last year. When the plans for her accommodations for her first weekend here were unexpectedly altered, hosting her in our home became the only option. It happened to be the weekend of our older son’s graduation from college—we had lots of things to do (impressive meals to plan) and we were expecting out-of-town visitors. I was not enthusiastic about the intrusion of this guest; I didn’t want to be her host. But as the weekend unfolded, my initial reluctance was duly chastened, my fretfulness unfounded. Dorcas’ presence with us was a gift, and I (and each member of my family) was a recipient of her generous, hospitable spirit. Just who was the guest and who was the host that weekend was hard to discern.

Such an experience is one of the humbling gifts of cruciform hospitality: just when we think we are offering hospitality to a stranger (aren’t we nice), the stranger herself turns out to be Christ in disguise, ministering to us.

(Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2008)


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Habeas Corpus


by Brian E. Volck
In the Common Lectionary for Protestant churches, tomorrow is the second Sunday after Pentecost. In Roman Catholic churches, however, it’s Corpus Christi: not a city in Texas, but the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. From Thursday until Sunday, more traditional Catholic churches will hold processions, and countless homilies will be devoted to what it means live, move and have our being in Christ’s Body. A recent post on Theolog, the Christian Century blog, has me thinking about how various Christian traditions embody “Real Presence.”

I wonder how much anger and division could have been avoided if excessively-precise definition and binary theorizing hadn’t left so little room for the Holy Spirit. I, for one, recall the Franciscan nuns teaching me to find Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, in the Body gathered for liturgy, in the Word proclaimed to the assembly and in the Stranger.

Where do you find Christ when you are least disposed to recognize him?

(Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2008)


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Walking with God Slowly

by Kyle Childress
Many of us remember the experience of having someone, usually a parent or grandparent, tell us when we were young, “You know, when I was your age I had to walk to school and it was uphill both ways.” That old saying has been echoing in my head a lot lately. At least since I’ve been walking from my house to the church occasionally and then back again. When I used to drive the same route I knew it was uphill both directions but not in the same way I now know. To be more specific, it is more uphill going than it is coming back and the tilt to one side is hard on the ankles.

Noticing things, paying attention to details is a recurring wonder to me the more walking I do. My preferred walk is the Tucker House trails behind the SFA Native Plant Center. There’s no traffic, not many people, beautiful woods and plant life, and I spot plenty of animals, birds, and reptiles (copperheads!) when I pay attention to what’s around me. Once I leave those quiet trails I’ve noticed a lot of other things. For instance, I’ve noticed that Nacogdoches does not have a lot of sidewalks and we’re not a very pedestrian or bicyclist friendly place. Some folks think that if you’re out walking then something must be wrong with you and they express their thoughts with various rude behaviors. Although, I’ve also noticed that as gas prices soar, fewer and fewer drivers think a walker is odd. I’ve noticed that people are in a hurry and some are more hurried than others as they zoom past me. I’ve noticed people in their yards like to wave, children like to talk, dogs like to bark, and some dogs like to bark, growl, and run after you. I’ve noticed geraniums and azaleas and irises and poison ivy and fire ants. I’ve noticed that good shoes are important and a knapsack full of books is not. I’ve noticed that it’s harder to get mad when I’m walking and easier to smile. I’ve noticed that I can walk further, longer, and more enjoyably than I could six or seven months ago and that my heart feels better. I’ve noticed that I don’t mind the time used for walking like I did when I began. And I’ve noticed that walking is a great time for thinking, imagining, and talking with God.

Theologian Kosuke Koyama suggests that some things God can teach us only very slowly, at a walking pace. As an example, he says that God decided to spend forty years to teach one lesson to the children of Israel: “that human beings do not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.” God teaches and walks slowly because God is love and the speed of love is slow; it is attentive; it notices. Koyama says, God walks three-miles-an-hour because that’s the speed of our walking and God walks beside us in love. The prophet Micah says that God only requires us to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). I wonder if Micah means that God walks humbly and slowly and if we want to know God then we have to walk with the same slowness and humility? Zooming through our lives, pedal to the metal, multi-tasking with our cell phones and gulping our coffee, perhaps we’re missing God? We catch a glimpse in our rear-view mirror of a slow-moving figure and never pay the least notice that we’ve just missed God.

One of my thoughts while walking has been what it would mean for us to be a “slow church?” There is a movement coming out of Europe called “slow food.” It is the opposite of fast-food. Slow food means not only do we take time to eat, enjoy, and savor our food and do so communally, with friends and family, but that we take the time to properly prepare food and notice where it comes from and how it is grown and its effects on the environment. Good meals take time. So do good churches.

My friend Stan Wilson, a pastor of the outstanding yet modest sized Northside Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi, and I have been talking about what a slow church might be. Or to use another metaphor, one used in environmental and agrarian conversations, a “sustainable church.” I’m not sure what a slow church or a sustainable church might look like but I’m pretty sure it is a church small enough that the members notice one another and pay loving attention toward others.

English Baptist Thomas Helwys, in his 1611 Confession, wrote that the members of every congregation should know one another so they can perform the duties of love towards one another “and therefore a church ought not to consist of such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another” (article 16).

My hunch is that a slow church or sustainable church is one that slows down the pace of life and learns to walk with God and with one another. Some of this might very well mean that we literally get out of our cars, out of our air-conditioned houses, and certainly away from the televisions and technology and walk (or guys – join the “old guys yoga” group). Perhaps it might mean that we do more gardening and notice more of what’s going on in God’s creation and encouraging less use of fossil fuels in Nacogdoches. It probably has something to do with local economics and encouraging local neighborhoods with sidewalks where people can walk around and get to know each other. Maybe it means that we don’t produce “fast Christians” with the expertise of a glitzy plan from a mega-church in a big city, and we trust more in what God is doing through one another right here, and that becoming Christian takes time and the practice of skills like prayer and forgiveness and service.

I don’t know for sure but it’s what I’m thinking about when I’m walking. I’d like to know what you think. Meanwhile, as you speed up the hill on Austin Street approaching the church, slow down enough to notice the fellow trudging along. Give him a smile and a kind wave. It might be me.

(Originally published Tuesday, May 20, 2008)


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Trinity Sunday


by Debra Dean Murphy
This Sunday is Trinity Sunday on the Christian calendar, the only feast day in the liturgical year devoted to a doctrine of the Church. Many on this day will be tempted to dust off the clumsy analogies: The Trinity is like a three-leaf clover. The Trinity is like the three phases of water—liquid, solid, steam.

No wonder people in the pews often rebel against doctrinal sermons.

But the problem, of course, is not with doctrine. The problem is that many Christians consider doctrine (whether we’re talking about the Trinity or salvation or the nature of the Church) as something extraneous to the Christian life—something for the scholars and theologians to argue about; something to be tolerated, as in the case of Trinity Sunday, in a tedious sermon once year on the Sunday after Pentecost.

Christian doctrine—conventional wisdom assumes—is inscrutable and irrelevant. What people crave are principles to live by, "values" to give their lives purpose and meaning. “Give us experience, not doctrine!”, many church-goers seem to say.

The doctrine of the Trinity is foundational for Christian discipleship and for the ongoing shaping of Christian community. And yet our grasp of this doctrine is not merely a mental operation by which we give intellectual assent to the historic claim that God exists as one ousia and three hypostases. The truth of this doctrine is not available to us outside of our own participation in forms of life that bear witness to God as triune.

Earlier this week I attended a seminar on immigration sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches. The title of this event was “From Hostility to Hospitality:

Immigration and People of Faith.” In listening to several presentations, I thought about hospitality in relation to immigrants in relation to the Trinity.

In Rublev’s famous icon we are invited to “see through” the art itself (something every icon asks us to do) and to recognize that the divine life is one of eternal communion in which we are invited to dwell.

Hospitality is the nature of God’s triunity and is the call of the Church in the world.

Indeed, it is the work of God as Trinity to make icons of us—to conform us to the image of the crucified and risen Jesus (image= eikon).

It is Jesus the Son, our hospitable host, who, through the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit, meets us at the table and transforms us into icons of Trinitarian hospitality in and for the world. When we offer such welcome to others—to immigrants, beggars, strangers of all kinds, we “entertain angels unaware” and we practice the Holy Trinity.

So no clover this year, please.

(Originally Friday, May 16, 2008)


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The Full Gospel Anthem

by Jim McCoy

In Jesus Christ we have faith in the incarnate, crucified and risen God. In the incarnation we learn of the love of God for His creation; in the crucifixion we learn of the judgment of God upon all flesh; and in the resurrection we learn of God’s will for a new world. There could be no greater error than to tear these elements apart; for each of them comprises the whole. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics


That early evening in Dillsboro was the kind that makes Smokey Mountain summer dusks famous. It was 1974 and I was singing with a resort ministry group. We had just finished an unforgettable feast of trout and country ham at the Jarrett House. Now the little church across the street was pleasantly filled to hear us. The evening could not have been more perfect.

We sang about the goodness of God and the beauty of God’s creation, about understanding ourselves to be persons of worth created in God’s image, and the wonder, mystery and gratitude such a perspective brings. The group’s rich, well-rehearsed harmonies conveyed these truths beautifully. Those in the audience smiled their approval as we sat down, everyone pleased that our message had gotten across.

The pastor stood up and announced that a touring choir from a Florida orphanage was at a service station next door. They were headed for Asheville, but their bus had broken down and could not be repaired until morning. The church folk responded immediately to the pastor’s request for the choir to sleep in the church and invited the children to present their program right then and there.

The 50 young people lit into a high-voltage program conducted by the large, red-faced director of the orphanage. They sang about the wiles of the devil, of the terrible wickedness in the world and of the rewards waiting for us in heaven. Between the songs, individual choir members spoke in graphic detail of the shocking abuse that had been inflicted on them. Through their sobs and heaves they cried that Jesus was coming soon to take us away from this hellhole of a world.

I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one who left Dillsboro that night deeply troubled over the diametrically opposed messages. Yes, economic station and life experiences affect our understanding, but is our faith in Christ that precariously relative?

That’s not a bad post-modern question to keep asking ourselves. But today, more than 30 years later, I’m struck by how these two experiences need each other to mutually deepen and correct. To avoid life’s harsh, raw side with its terrifying evil results in self-indulgently shallow religion that focuses on little more than the inner serenity of materially comfortable individuals. If the story of our identity has at its center a crucified God, we cannot avoid the hoary reality and language of sin and redemption. But to dwell only of life’s gross and sinister evil dulls one to the gentle, abundant gifts that arrive daily from an extravagant God who sends rain on the just and the unjust.

We cannot tear these elements apart. Somehow the resort ministry team and the orphanage choir must sing in harmony in order for the full anthem of the Gospel to resound. To do so, though, yet another note must be sounded.

Both summer dusk beauty and midnight abuse can ignore the staggering news that the re-creative power of God has already broken into the present time. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the dawning of a new creation. “When anyone is united to Christ, there is a whole new world (II Cor. 5:17, NEB). When we walk in the light of the resurrection, we give witness to the God whose love has invaded a fallen creation and who will bring to completion the redemption already begun.

Karl Barth says that the Gospel “is not a romantic report about awareness of God in nature.” Neither is it “a set of pious or moral maxims designed to straighten out the world” nor “a legalistic lament about the meanness of human nature.” Rather, “the Gospel is constituted by the mighty acts of God in history for the liberation of the cosmos.”

That’s a Song for all of us to sing!

(Originally published Tuesday, May 13, 2008)


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