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December 30, 2009

The Whole Package

by Debra Dean Murphy
Second Sunday After Christmas
Ephesians 1:3-19; John 1:1-18

It’s still Christmas. It’s hard to tell that from the culture around us, and maybe even a little hard to tell from this Sunday’s appointed lessons. For a few days we were immersed in the earthiness of the Nativity (barn animals, labor and delivery, a feeding trough for a bed). But this week’s readings have phrases like “before the foundation of the world,” “the mystery of his will,” and “in the beginning was the Word.”

It’s tempting, perhaps, to see a sharp division here. To imagine that the Christmas lections are about the simple, familiar, child-friendly stuff—cradles and crèches and shepherds and angels—and that the “After-Christmas” readings have gone all grown-up and academic on us. Logos? John wants to talk Greek while we’re still singing Away in a Manger?

But these first few verses from the beginning of John’s gospel wrap up our story like the beautiful Christmas present it is: Creation, Incarnation, Redemption are of a piece. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4). The Logos is the agent of creation, and the salvation that this Word-made-flesh brings is the fulfillment of creation. The first Word has, so to speak, the last Word.

As James Alison has pointed out: “The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death.”

And for those who will share in the Eucharist this Sunday, we will, literally, taste this life-giving reality—nothing abstract or academic about it. We will hold the Logos in our hands, taste him on our tongues. Word. Flesh. Light. Life. The incarnated One creating and ever redeeming us his body, we who have “heard the word of truth, the gospel of our salvation, and have believed in him” (Eph. 1:13).


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December 23, 2009

God in Particular

by Kyle Childress
Luke 2: 1-20

My college church organized a big evangelistic training and event. We went through two nights learning how to “win people to the Lord” using handy little tracts organized around “the four spiritual laws.” (#1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. #2 Man is sinful and separated from God. [Yes, only men.] #3 Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. #4 We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. – I still remember them after all these years.) Each spiritual law had a verse of Scripture attached to it to give it biblical validity. On the third night we were given the assignment of going out to neighborhoods and college dorms, knocking on doors, and if the person answering the door would allow us, we were to tell him the four spiritual laws. If the person said “yes” to the last law, we were to pray with him, asking for Jesus to enter into his heart. After the prayer, we congratulated him on becoming a Christian, told him to go to church the next Sunday and then off we went to “win” the next person to the Lord.

I remember walking down the hall after sharing the four spiritual laws and praying with that student, thinking to myself, “Something is wrong with all this.”

One of the great dangers and persistent temptations of the Christian life is abstraction and reduction, universalization and generalization. We like platitudes and principles, spiritual laws and high-sounding words like “love” and “grace” or “justice.”

But not with Luke. Not with the New Testament. At Christmas we run up against the Incarnation. Instead of timeless truth we get God in particular: a teenaged mother and young father with their baby in a cattle trough, trying to stay warm in a cow shed on the backside of a dusty overlooked town on the far side of the Roman Empire. We get the specific, the particular, the concrete. None of this “once upon a time,” timeless and eternal we get in fairy stories. This story can be dated – when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We can take a road map and follow Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Nazareth to Bethlehem. Not four spiritual laws. We get an angel calling Mary. God speaking to Joseph. God coming in the particularity of a baby.

Our preference for abstract principles and spiritual laws means we try to make the gospel into whatever we want. Literary critic Stanley Fish explains how the jury acquitted the policemen accused of beating Rodney King in the famous 1992 trial even though the policemen had been filmed on video of beating King. Fish says that the defense lawyers did two things: (1) They slowed the video down to one frame at a time so that each frame was isolated and stood by itself. (2) They asked the jury, one frozen frame at a time, was this blow excessive force? Did this blow intend to kill or maim? Each moment, each frame, and each blow was abstracted from the overall context, history, and story that gave them meaning. Therefore, the jury could not say of any of them that this did grievous harm to Rodney King (Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle, p. 309).

But when we stick with the story of the Incarnation we can’t make it anything we want. We can’t say “yes” to four spiritual laws and hate our neighbors and kill our enemies. We can’t ask an abstract Jesus into our hearts and ignore his life and the life he calls us to. We can’t be “spiritual” and not become a member of his contemporary body, the church. The miracle of the Incarnation says it is this Jesus born in the specifics of Bethlehem in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria who called us to a particular way of life embodied in his church located in our time and place today. God is particular. Jesus came to be with us right here.

My old teacher Fred Craddock tells the story of a preacher who loved to preach on big subjects and large issues every Sunday. From time to time some of his parishioners would complain of his big sermon topics and say they wanted something that helped them closer to home, helped them to get through the week but the pastor said they needed to learn to think beyond their petty concerns. So one week the pastor had to go to a denominational meeting in a large city and got one of his church members to go with him. When they reached the city, the pastor asked his church member to find a map so they could make their way to the meeting place. The church member reached over in the back seat and pulled up a globe of the world.

The God we worship comes to us in the particularity of this Jesus and in the specifics of his life embodied where we live. Thanks be to God.


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December 16, 2009

As Good As Done

by Doug Lee
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

We arrived at the village and were greeted by the headman and the welcoming committee. As the honored guests, we were made to sit on chairs under the mango tree. The only others who sat on chairs were men. The women and children sat on mats or on the dusty ground amid the chickens that had free run of the village.

While the important people sat “enthroned,” the clear leaders of the celebration were the women. They had come dressed in their best clothes, shiny and clean. They raised their voices in song, loud and bright. With call and response, joyful ululation, and bodies moving in vibrant celebration, these poor rural village women in Zambia gave voice to God’s victory over disease, hunger, and death.

In many times and places, it is the women who best celebrate the triumph of God.

Elizabeth’s profound greeting and Mary’s transcendent song echo the triumph songs of ages past. Miriam sang of Yahweh’s victory over the horse and the rider who had pursued the Hebrews into the sea. Hannah sang of Yahweh’s victory over her barrenness borne in the gift of Samuel—a sure sign of Yahweh’s coming victory over Israel’s barrenness in the time of the judges. These women’s words herald God’s powerful deliverance of His people.

But what are Elizabeth and Mary celebrating? Elizabeth has experienced a Hannah-esque conception. “Mary” is the Hellenized rendering (Mariam) of the name of Moses and Aaron’s sister. But where is the victory? Where are the dead charioteers and horses? All that is in view, it seems, are a couple of women sharing good news about their unusual pregnancies, and one of them sings. Their sons, as mighty as they will be, are not even born. Yet, these women are celebrating as if the victory had already been won. What’s the fuss? Nothing has happened yet.

But Mary lives in anything but a fantasy world. Luke has her singing her song “in the days of King Herod” (1:5). More than a vague chronological marker, Luke’s reference to the reign of the original King of the Jews carries nearly as much freight as “after 9/11.” Herod the Great was notoriously great at killing off his wives and sons. The gloriously beautiful temple in Jerusalem Herod built was underwritten by the crushing taxes borne by his subjects. Mary lives in time of acute political tension. “The proud,” “the powerful” on their thrones, and “the rich” have a face that fills the poor and marginalized with dread.

Mary, however, is as capable of overthrowing Herod and the empire he represents as the village women in Zambia are of pulling down a global economy that devastates their farming through drought and market forces. Instead of revolutionary fervor, what Mary models is how to live in the hope of Advent, how to live in between the ages. Instead of taking matters into her own hands, she sings. Instead of seizing power, Mary rejoices.

The already is small; the not yet is vast. Yet Mary can cling to the words of promise God has entrusted to her. The leaping of the yet-unborn John and the blessing pronounced by Elizabeth confirm Mary’s miraculous conception and equally miraculous vocation as the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. A virgin conceives and a poor peasant girl from a backwater village is named great. In these small signs unnoticed among the rich and powerful, Mary sees the outlines of a divine revolution. Her song identifies God, and not any human agent, as the one launching a decisive reversal of all of our power equations:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

At last, God will fulfill His promise to bring forth a King who will shepherd His people with mercy and justice. “And he will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (Micah 5:4). He will judge tyrants like Herod and redeem a broken creation. In fact, Mary declares these decisive events as already having happened. God’s mighty reversal is all in the past tense. It is as good as done!

We who despise small beginnings and insist on seeing everything before we get on board will miss out on joining what God is doing. This is God’s way of working: backwater village, peasant girl, manger, mustard seed, and cross.

Mary models a hope that doesn’t begin with us or our ability to see. It doesn’t even begin with the Church. It begins with a revolutionary God who is true to His word. God will put the world right. Mary models the Church’s hopeful vocation and Her dangerous joy.

To echo Elizabeth: Blessed are they who believe that the Lord will fulfill what He has promised. Let us rejoice!


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December 15, 2009

A Political Pregnancy (and the Beatles)

by Jenny Williams
Luke 1:39-46, 47-55; Micah 5:2-5a

Though it is not my regularly scheduled week to share a lectionary reflection with you, I was struck with some thoughts this morning while I prepared for Sunday’s sermon. Charles L. Aaron, writing in this month’s Lectionary Homiletics on the gospel text for Advent 4C, takes the two Lukan pericopes as they come in Luke, one after the other, rather than separating them into the Visitation (to be read as the gospel lesson) and the Magnificat (to be read as the Psalter or the Canticle for the day).

In doing so, he contrasts the innocence of the girl who is to give birth to Jesus with the political ramifications of that birth. Taking verses 39-46 and 47-55 together, he says, “gives the preacher abundant material for preaching that critiques the sentimentality of the Christmas season. God speaks through simple, humble people in out of the way locations. The birth of Jesus has implications for our interior spirituality as the opening lines of the Magnificat indicate but also demands change in politics, economics, and use of power. This passage calls for deeper spirituality but also for the church to hold accountable politicians and all who exercise power. It reaffirms God’s continuing use of synagogue and church.”

I think Mary had no idea what she was doing. I mean that in a positive way. Her assent to all that the angel Gabriel told her was an act of deep faithfulness. But it was a relatively small act in the scheme of things. Her part in the ultimate reign of Christ was to have a baby. That she could do. Not that the consequences of the pregnancy were easy to handle (Joseph’s plans to dismiss her) nor were the conditions under which the baby was to be born (a smelly stable). But she offered herself to be God’s servant in that particular time and place by doing what she could do given her social location.

Aaron’s comments brought two Marian examples to mind. One I heard on NPR the other day. In Cobell v. Salazar, a case which alleged 122 years of mismanagement of American Indians’ trust accounts by the Department of the Interior, a $3.4 billion settlement was awarded to the plaintiffs. The suit went on for 13 years. Elouise Cobell noted that the suit became much bigger than she’d ever expected. The suit began as a response to requests by Native American elders to see if funds existed to make basic repairs on their houses or feed their grandchildren. Over 13 years, it became a story of reparations and how history gets narrated. What started out as a small decision by Cobell to be faithful to her people had implications that went far beyond her initial impulse to do what was right.

I’m also reminded of the people of Le Chambon, whom I learned about in movie shown in one of Stanley Hauerwas’ seminary classes. In World War II, this tiny Protestant village in southern France became a haven for Jews fleeing the Nazis and their French collaborators. The Chambonais hid Jews in their homes, providing significant assistance to them. We see them as shining stars in the church’s dark history of complacency in the face of Nazism, but the villagers routinely rejected any labels of heroism. They frequently and genuinely stated that they were simply helping people in need. What started out as their small decisions to be faithful had implications far beyond their initial impulse to do what was right.

Like Cobell and the Chambonais, Mary did not set out to tackle the principalities and the powers. She agreed to have a baby. In the words of the Beatles, she did not “say she wanted a revolution.” She said “let it be” with me according to your word. I agree with Aaron that the church should hold accountable those in power. We should challenge injustice in large, systemic ways. But I wonder if this Sunday is a time to instead give credit to the small acts of subversion that we really don’t see as subversive at all, or that come from places or people who do not see themselves as subversive. After all, Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, came from “one of the little clans of Judah.” Who’da thunk it?


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December 09, 2009

I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy

by Jenny Williams
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

The second most popular Advent question asked in the United Methodist Churches I’ve served is “Why is there one pink candle on the Advent wreath?” (THE most popular question has of course been “When can we start singing Christmas carols?”)

The pink candle is lit on the third Sunday of Advent because since the 10th century, that day has been recognized by the catholic church as Gaudete, or Joy, Sunday. (See one history here.) As early as the fifth century, Christians prepared for Christmas with a forty-day fast. The weeks prior to Christmas were a season of penitence, much in the way that Lent functions in relation to Easter. One can see how the lectionary texts in the first couple weeks of Advent issue calls to reflection and penitence: “The Kingdom is at hand! Know how to read the signs! Repent!” My Greek Orthodox friends observe two fasts prior to and during Advent, increasing in severity and restriction, as a way of preparing for the coming of Christ. They understand that preparation for the coming of Christ entails self-examination and sacrifice.

In faith traditions where the penitential nature of Advent is observed, the third Sunday of Advent is an occasion which ensures that the joy of Christ’s first and second comings is made clear. The texts for that day bring that joy and anticipation to the forefront of the church’s worship. The prophet Zephaniah assures us that God will “save the lame and gather the outcast” as well as “deal with their oppressors.” Joy! Paul exhorts the Philippians to “rejoice in the Lord always.” Joy! And Luke reports that upon hearing John the Baptist’s message were “filled with expectation.” Joy, joy, joy all over the place!

The pink candle has been a witness to me in recent years. In my Protestant upbringing, December worship wasn’t much more than a prelude to the nativity. It wasn’t until my preaching years that the pink candle began to inform my interpretation of the texts on the first and second Sundays in Advent. I’ve been striking more penitential tones in recent Advents, knowing that Gaudete Sunday is ahead, waiting to help us understand what we are preparing for. This Sunday, our congregation will pull out all the stops during our worship services. A small ensemble of church members who are singers and instrumentalists have been practicing to lead our congregation through some intentionally upbeat music. Some of our small children will be playing “Ode to Joy” on the piano. We intend to have a longer time for the passing of the peace, which (gasp!) may even make worship run past its “usual” ending time.

Of course, each Sunday reminds us of the joy of the resurrection, and Gaudete Sunday is not meant to manufacture a cheap joy through emotional manipulation of worshippers. What I hope our celebration will do is focus our attention on the joy of the eschaton, the redemption of all creation, the glorious telos that the Church anticipates and waits for, but forgets to talk about in the waiting. I pray that our worship will form people for Advents to come, so that their joy is not contained in packages with pretty bows but in the uncontainable God, who is, was, and is to come. Joy!


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December 03, 2009

Who Bears the Weight of Empire?

by Brian Volck
Luke 3:1-6

In today’s gospel, Luke moves rapidly from Emperor Tiberius, in Rome, through a cascade of governors, tetrarchs and high priests, to an eccentric Galilean hayseed (the sort of misfit you’d expect in a Flannery O’Connor short story, with his weird clothes, overwrought speech and hyper-religious obsessions) on a riverside in the nether regions of an inconsequential Roman province. In terms of historical, social and political importance, the downhill slope here is dizzyingly steep.

Still, Luke’s concern – for now – is Elizabeth and Zecahriah’s John-boy, not the movers and shakers of first century Judea. Augustus may have proclaimed a census in the chapter immediately preceding this, but it’s John, not Tiberius, making proclamations now: “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The words Luke quotes from Isaiah (40:3-5) speak of reckonings and reversals, themes careful readers of Luke 1 and 2 are well prepared for. (Don’t trust me; read them yourself!) Luke’s narrative delights in paradox and inversions, and rarely strays from the marginalized and cast-offs of the world, those who weep and mourn, forever living in the hope.

As I write this, the President of the United States is announcing his plans to send 30,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan, a land which – for sound historical reasons – is called “Graveyard of Empires.” I’m not competent to critique the geopolitical rationale for this decision. I have no idea how this will end, or when anyone will be able to say with confidence that it has ended.

I only ask followers of Jesus in this season of waiting to hold in their hearts the many who will weep in the months to come. Reckonings and reversals await, and few or none may resemble what the movers and shakers of our day imagine. The marginalized in the US, Afghanistan and elsewhere will almost certainly suffer these more so than you or I or Barack Obama or Hamid Karzai.

Where, in the ongoing narrative of contemporary empires, do you hear the voice of one calling in the wilderness? Where do you hope to see the Glory of the Lord revealed to all flesh?


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November 25, 2009

Spring Will Come Before We Know It

by Ragan Sutterfield
I have been shopping for trees lately—apples, figs, maybe a few persimmons. It will be couple of years before the trees bare fruit and now, as we move into December the trees are dormant, reserving their sugars to live out a time when the sun won’t be around enough to power their life. The trees are moving to their reserve supplies; they are waiting until the spring. But at some point, when the conditions of rain and sun and a myriad of other factors come together, there will be a moment, one moment, when the trees will shoot forth leaves again. This will happen simultaneously for trees of the same species, in the same area, at similar elevations.

The same will begin to happen with other plants. Seeds planted in the cold ground of February will begin sprouting in March and as a farmer, if I’m not ready for the work of weeding and tending and watering, I’ll be in trouble in a hurry. The garden will suddenly spring to life and I better be prepared to meet its bounty and challenges. Though winter is a slower time, beware the farmer that slacks off for three months when she’s not actively growing food.


In the agrarian world of Jesus’s peasant audience in Luke 21:25-36 this picture of watching for the signs of a new season and being ready to respond would have made a great deal of sense. Jesus uses this idea of watching for the “signs of the times” to point to a new sort of spring—the coming of his kingdom of righteousness. It is a time that will bring woe to those who have not prepared to meet the coming spring, but a time of coming abundance for those who have.

This same reality is echoed in Jeremiah 33:14-16. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made…In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Justice and righteousness will soon spring forth. The messiah is coming.

So how do we spend this time of winter? How will we ready our selves so that the day of Christ’s coming will not “catch [us] unexpectedly”? The answer comes in the Epistle to the Thessalonians: “may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” We prepare for the coming of Christ through building up of agape communities, communities that grow from the Church but spread that love to all.

To return to our agricultural metaphor we might think of the Church as soil and of agape as a soil amendment like fertilizer or lime. If you take a pasture of grass in a place that has soil that is slightly acidic (a pH of 5 say) and add enough lime to raise the pH closer to neutral (pH of 6.5) then amazing things begin to happen to that pasture. New plants will begin to appear as dormant seeds are brought to life through the new condition of the soil, legumes that are rich in protein to feed cattle and sheep will begin to grow and build the soil by fixing nitrogen, grasses that offer animals no nutrient value will begin to decline and the field will begin to flourish in an idyllic deep green.

When we increase agape in our communities this same flourishing will take place. The soil will be ready to grow the seeds of justice and righteousness that will bring Christ’s presence into our particular communities and places. So let us grow in agape love, spreading it in our hearts and communities, that we might use this time of winter to prepare for the welcoming of God’s kingdom that is already present and springing forth.


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November 17, 2009

Ultimate Imagination

by Doug Lee
Daniel 7:9-14; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-38a

Some years ago, a friend of ours who was a major player on the Nigerian political scene nearly met an untimely death but survived. After confronting his mortality—his end, Takai abandoned his ascendant career trajectory and told his children that they would receive no inheritance from him. Their inheritance would now come in the form of a ministry he would establish to care for needy widows and orphans. Today that ministry cares for and brings together hundreds of Christians and Muslims in fractured northern Nigeria. Takai’s confrontation with the end unleashed imaginative energy for discipleship and ministry.

Admirable as it is, Takai’s story makes little sense to us because we believe something entirely different: it’s a world without limits that allows for creativity and life at its fullest.

“Your world. Delivered.” So boasts AT&T, would-be savior of the world. Through technology, such powers claim that we can possess all the world’s knowledge (omniscience), obtain all the world’s goods (omnipotence), and be continually connected to people everywhere (omnipresence). What we are being sold is a life of limitless possibilities. We can have it all, anytime, anywhere. We can keep our options open forever.

But while we celebrate seemingly endless opportunity, isn’t it paradoxical that we also feel trapped by our limits? We say, “I had no choice. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what else to do.” Even as we boast of our freedom, we are also tortured by our finitude. We exercise very little creativity. Instead of living imaginatively, our lives are full of a sameness that betrays our lethargy.

Why does this paradox exist?

Among possible reasons is that our freedom is built on the interlocking myths of a global economy that can grow endlessly, a world of unlimited resources, and a security apparatus that can maintain these conditions.

In AD 90, the Roman Empire boasted of establishing a similar world order and deemed itself worthy of a new name—Imperium Aeternum. The “Eternal Empire” claims that what currently is, has always been, and always will be, forever and ever. Amen.

It is the role of an empire to erase any memory of anything that came before. Empires survive by creating a myth of being limitless. And by sustaining this myth, empires nullify any attempt to think of anything that could come afterwards.

It is the apparently limitless power of our modern day Eternal Empire that saps our capacity to live courageously. In a world without limits, the need for imagination has come to an end. How can we imagine or want more when we already have everything we want, when we already live as kings and queens?

The gospel tells us that what we see now isn’t the total reality. But we struggle to gain traction against such forces. We ought to be able to do more and do better as disciples, especially given that we possess so much. But we fight feeling powerless.
But instead of fighting against our finitude or seeing it as a sign of failure, what if we saw it as precisely the way God opens up for us to be faithful? Instead of assuming that we can do what is ultimate, what if we gave ourselves to embracing the basic, the flawed, and the provisional as the way forward?

Christ the King Sunday, at the end of the Christian calendar, gives us texts that speak of finality as an antidote to our boasts of ultimacy.

First, we jump into the middle of Daniel’s fantastic dream. Earlier Daniel saw fierce beasts representing four empires: a lion with eagle wings as the Babylonian Empire; a bear-like Median Empire; a leopard embodying the Persian Empire; and finally, the dreadful beast with iron teeth and ten horns standing for Alexander’s Hellenistic Empire. The last beast sprouts an eleventh horn that boasts about its god-like power.

It’s called good PR. Your world. Delivered.

But in contrast to the horn’s noisy arrogance, a solemn scene takes shape backstage. The main act is getting ready: a heavenly court where the Ancient of Days judges the four beasts. The first three are allowed to remain but have their authority taken away, but the fourth beast is put to death and burned up. Contrary to the illusions of an Eternal Empire, there will be a final judgment of every empire and nation. It will be final, not because it will happen at the end of time but because there is no court of appeal. The time of all empires comes to an end.

Then Daniel sees a vision surpassing even this dramatic courtroom scene. The Son of Man comes with the clouds of heaven to the throne of God to receive all authority and glory. All peoples will serve him and his kingdom will last forever. Talk about unlimited power and an eternal empire!

Fast-forward to Revelation 1, and we see that the Son of Man is none other than Jesus Christ, who suffered at the hands of another empire and yet was vindicated to become the ruler of the kings of the earth. He is the first and the last, King over the beginning and the end of history and Lord of everything in between. Final judgment, final authority, Christ is King not only at the end of time but here and now.

Contrary to the arrogant boasts of our current empire, God will bring its dominion to an end. There is a limit to how much power it has and how long it will possess that power because Christ is King.

But the proclamation that Christ is King is not meant to immobilize us in a new way. Daniel and Revelation could lead us to think that we are left with nothing to do but to hunker down until the end.

No. The vision of Jesus’ ultimacy is meant to give us confidence and energize us for courageous living in the present.

Jesus models this courage in his trial before Pilate. At first glance, it appears that Pilate holds all of the cards. Jesus has no room to maneuver. When Pilate and the empire he represents dominate, there is no room for imagination, only the narrow options offered by the world’s pragmatism. But when we recognize that empires and our own lives are limited, we are in a place to act imaginatively.

Jesus is able to speak boldly before Pilate and his empire because he does not hang onto the illusion of an unlimited life that is his to guard. Instead, he lays down his life in faithful submission to the Father.

This is precisely the opposite of what we so often think. We often think submission is the narrowest of options. But Jesus demonstrates that submission to the Father is vast because embracing our humility before God opens us up to options previously closed to us. Jesus, not Pilate, is the one with room to maneuver because he is not defined by all of the limitations of self-preservation and self-aggrandizement. Pilate is the one whose hands are tied. But Jesus is free—free to suffer, free to be misunderstood, free to die. That’s real creativity and true freedom. Joyful self-giving (and not any of the so-called alternative lifestyles) constitutes living outside the box.

When the ultimacy of Christ’s judgment grabs hold of us, we are in a place to see through the imperial deception of an unlimited life and learn that suffering isn’t the dead-end we fear. We can go through the basic, daily, and unremarkable practices of faithfulness without demanding that they assume noticeable proportions. When the vision of Christ as King drives us, we are in a place to live out our discipleship creatively.


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November 10, 2009

Religious But Not Spiritual

by Debra Dean Murphy
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18), 19-25
Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together..." (Hebrews 10:24)

The SBNR website puts it like this: “Spiritual But Not Religious” describes a new worldview that is inclusive and open as opposed to separatist and closed. SBNR people desire a deep experience of life, including the mysteries of life, without the limitations and baggage of doctrine and religion.

On the SBNR home page you can sign up to have “daily affirmation seeds” delivered to your email inbox. There, one assumes, they will sprout and grow, “help[ing] you to believe in your amazing essence and bring[ing] many of your deepest intentions into reality.”

I don’t have to tell you how enormously popular such sites (and sentiments) are. I have recently (re)discovered how prevalent “Spiritual But Not Religious” devotees are on college campuses, even (especially?) church-related ones. Yet no matter the age group or demographic, this business of shedding the “baggage of doctrine and religion” is what it’s all about: snubbing dogma and its perceived strictures, rejecting all forms of religion, especially the organized kind.

But I’m with Bill Cavanaugh on this one: “being against organized religion is like being against organized hospitals.” Institutions will always be subject to corruption and silliness, fraud and ineptitude, since they are comprised of people who . . . well, since they are comprised of people.

But the organized, institutional part of religion – the messy materiality of people and practices – is its beating heart. Contra the breezy, anti-establishment tenets of SBNR (which are themselves pretty dogmatic), doctrine is simply the lived and living witness of a received tradition. The Christian doctrine of creation, for instance, is not a proposition to be believed in, a theory of how the world got its start way back when. Rather, it’s a way of seeing all things in relation to God; a way of receiving, offering, loving, and living one’s life as sheer gift.

For the past few weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary’s epistle reading – The Letter to the Hebrews – has drawn us into the messy materiality of corporate religion: worship and prayer, gifts and offerings, cries, sighs, and tears. This week we are admonished to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together.” That’s the inconvenient thing about religion: it asks you to do stuff – like worship with other people, love other people, do good to and for other people.

And to do it all regardless of how you feel about any of it.

To be spiritual but not religious, on the other hand, is to be unburdened by such stifling obligation. It is to turn inward instead of outward – to find, as the gospel according to Oprah puts it, “the god within.” This of course sounds like liberation – no commandments to obey, no debts to pay, no community to be responsible to. But it is, in the end, the worst sort of tyranny since the ruler and its subject are one and the same: the human ego.

There’s a Facebook group called “I’m Religious But Not Spiritual.” Having joined it recently, I’ve noticed that it creates a good deal of bewilderment. Is it parody? Is it serious? Does it intend to confuse? The answers, from what I can tell, are yes, yes, and yes. To be “religious” in this world of obsessive spiritual questing is to be strange indeed. For Christians, it is to recognize that salvation – abundant life in the Spirit – is mediated through mundane realities like bread, water, and wine and through a body, Christ’s body, the Church.

Because this is true, Christians – persons who are religious but not spiritual – can appropriate Martin Buber’s enduring insight: “The spiritual life is, for the most part, the obstacle to a life lived in the Spirit.”


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October 27, 2009

A Christian Memorial Day

by Jenny Williams
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6; John 11:32-44

Where I live, remembering and honoring the dead is celebrated annually in May. Over Memorial Day weekend, families flock to cemeteries, flowers in hand, to decorate the graves of loved ones who have passed. In many cases out-of-town relatives come in for this ritual. It’s a pretty big deal.

The church remembers the dead at an entirely different time of year. In Protestant churches, on either November 1st or the first Sunday in November, we celebrate All Saints’ Day. In the churches I’ve served, we remember and name the members of the congregation who have died since All Saints’ Day the year before.

What prevents the Church’s practices on All Saints’ Day from turning into ancestor worship, and what makes those practices different from the practice of decorating graves?

First, the church always strives to lift up the good news that we are part of a people and not individuals unto ourselves. The liturgical acts of remembering each saint by ringing a bell, lighting a candle, or naming help us remember that the Christian life is not a solo endeavor, but one lived out in community—a community that extends and exists beyond our earthly bodies. We are part of the people of God in life and in death. Liturgical practices on All Saints’ Day give us a visual or audible reminder that more than one of us has died, and that those who have died are part of “all the company of heaven” (as the United Methodist Eucharistic liturgy proclaims). Decorating graves tends to focus on one person and who they have been, while the church’s celebration lifts up the whole communion of saints and who they will become in the redemption of all creation. “What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like him.” (1 John 3:2, paraphrase)

This sense of the continuity of the people of God is further highlighted by a celebration of the sacraments on All Saints’ Sunday. If your church follows the tradition of baptizing on All Saints’ Day, as one of four days of baptism in the church (the other three being the Baptism of the Lord, Easter, and Pentecost) new saints are brought into the church temporal in conjunction with the celebration of the passing of saints into the church triumphant. Celebrating Eucharist on All Saints’ Day can highlight the aspect of the communion of the saints: that in the body of Christ we are in mystical union with all the faithful, across space and time. When we feast, we feast together in Christ, our head, who at the heavenly banquet after his final victory will serve us the “rich food and well-aged wines” that Isaiah tells us about.

And while a decoration of a grave may dwell on our loss, All Saints’ Day sharpens our focus on the resurrection. A death date on a gravestone may remind us of the day someone “left us.” The tradition of lifting up the death dates of historic Christian martyrs calls us to dwell not on loss and separation but hope and reunion. Jesus called Lazarus out from the grave, unbound and unfettered. Doing so, he removed Mary and Martha’s grief and foreshadowed something that we can all look forward to. God has “swallowed up death forever!” We will not remain in the grave, stinky and broken. We will be made whole and found forever with the Lamb and all the faithful departed. A Church which takes seriously its liturgical responsibility on All Saints’ Day provides a tremendous act of pastoral and congregational care to those who grieve. Let us offer something greater than putting flowers on a grave.


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October 22, 2009

Coming Home with Shouts of Joy

by Ragan Sutterfield
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). It’s a striking question Jesus asks Bartimaeus—a beggar sitting beside the road when Jesus passes by; a blind man whose pleas of “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” could not be suppressed. What kind of answer was Jesus expecting? Bartimaeus is a blind beggar; does Jesus expect an answer other than the one that Bartimaeus gives? He wants his sight back!

But Jesus doesn’t give him his sight back. He replies to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus only reveals to Bartimaeus that it was Bartimaeus’s own faith that made him well.


To understand this passage better perhaps we should look back at the reading just preceding it from the Gospel last week. It was in this Gospel that the disciples argue about who should sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he comes to power and are taught once again that it is the first who will be last and the last who will be first. The passage just following this story is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

We are told that Jesus is travelling with a large crowd when he meets Bartimaeus. We must gather from this sequence that Jesus is travelling toward Jerusalem and the rumors that he is coming to take power are gaining traction. Jesus, for all those with him, is the new king with all of the power and status that goes with that.

This is the reason that those crowding around the road are so stern with Bartimaeus. What is this blind beggar doing? Jesus is on his way to over throw the Romans and this outcast, sitting just outside of Jericho, is demanding his attention. Imagine the presidential motorcade going down the road and a bipolar homeless man yelling out for the president to help him. Everyone would tell him to shut up. And in this case that is what they did.

But Bartimaeus didn’t shut up. He knew that Jesus was his only chance and Jesus responds to Bartimaeus’s plea. “What do you want me to do for you?” It is an open question; a servant’s question. It is not the question of a genie, asking what wish he can grant. It is a question like that asked by a servant of his master. By asking this question Jesus changes the situation and shows his disciples exactly what he was just talking about, that the Son of Man came to be the servant of all.

What he says in response to Bartimaeus’s request also turns the situation upside down. He does not claim to have healed Bartimaeus. It was Bartimaeus’s own faith that made him well. In this way Jesus responds to both of Bartimaeus’s needs. He is not only made to see, but he is also freed from the situation of being a beggar.

Bartimaeus was an outcast, excluded from society, literally outside of the city. Jesus reaches out to him and brings him back, returns him from exile. It is as we read in Jeremiah, “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back” (31:9a) and in Psalm 126, “Those who go out weeping…shall come home with shouts of joy” (v.6).

We are told that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. For most of those traveling with Jesus they are on the way to take hold of power, to unseat the Romans and take their place. With Bartimaeus we see that Jesus is displacing the powers, not to occupy their place, but to make room for a different kind of kingdom where blind beggars are asked, “What do you want me to do for you?”


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October 15, 2009

The Unknowable Shape of Things to Come

by Brian Volck
Is 53:4-12; Heb 4:14-16 (Catholic), 5:1-10 (Revised Common); Mark 10:35-45

Do we ever truly know what we’re getting into? If young couples truly knew what pledges of lifelong fidelity require, would anyone marry? If humans truly knew what children demand of parents, would the species continue? If any of us truly knew how often grief is the final evidence of earthly love, would anyone choose to love?

Zebedee’s boys have no idea what they’re asking. Not that they weren’t warned. The verses immediately preceding today’s gospel are another prediction of Jesus suffering and death in Jerusalem. James and John must not have been paying attention. Perhaps they were thinking of the view from either side of the throne of glory.

By the shape of our lives, most of us make plain we prefer arriving at Easter without first negotiating Good Friday. Many of us imagine that, if we lived in another time, we’d help fleeing slaves along the Underground Railroad or hide Jews and gypsies from Nazi thugs. Nearly all of us imagine our good intentions are discernible, if not to others, then at least to God.

Most of us are fortunate not to have our mettle tested. Very few of us will drink the cup of martyrdom, struggle forthrightly against present darkness, or know if our efforts we think noblest will appear, with the perspective of years, virtuous and fruitful.

Certainty and perspective are not ours to enjoy. Instead, Jesus offers the gift of service to embody, share and pass on. This is all Christians can be sure of getting into: a life we hope resembles Jesus’.

In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton offers this prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

We don’t choose the road or its destination, but we can stumble in a direction we believe to be forward or let ourselves be led in trust. The rest is not up to us, nor ours to know.


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October 07, 2009

Thanks, but No Thanks

by Kyle Childress
Job 23: 1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22: 1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

Around our church some of us have undertaken the simple task of teaching our children basic manners, especially things like speaking clearly, looking a person in the eye, standing straight, and shaking hands with a good firm grip. One 9-year-old boy, who came to church when he was four from an abusive home, used to hide under the chairs when you talked to him and the only way he showed any affection was to come up and hit. We’ve worked with him, been very patient and loving, and we’ve taken the time to give him these basic lessons about social interaction. It has been good to watch him practice these lessons and grow and change.

Good posture, firm handshakes, head held high and eye contact – this is the way we carry ourselves; it is our exterior and physical demeanor. It is an indication of what is going on in our souls.

It shows up in this week’s Gospel reading.

A man comes to Jesus asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17).

Jesus tells him what the tradition expects: obey the commandments. Surprisingly, the man says that he has been obeying all of the commandments since he was a kid.

Then Jesus, in the words of Mark, “looking upon him loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mk 10:21-22).

What an interesting old phrase – his countenance fell. His countenance became sorrowful. A person’s countenance usually means the person’s face but in this story it sounds as if it also refers to his whole posture. He excitedly goes to talk to Jesus, the same Jesus whom Mark says loved the young man. But after his conversation, his countenance fell. His shoulders slumped, he hung his head down, his face was saddened.

As far as I know, this is the only story in the Gospels where Jesus invites a person to discipleship and they turn it down. “He went away sorrowful”; he turned his back on Jesus because of one thing: money. “For he had great possessions.”

I suppose that might cause a lot of us to have our countenances fall, for we too have great possessions. When we discover that discipleship has to do with our money, our shoulders sag, our faces drop, and maybe like that 4-year-old-boy, we want to hide under the chair.

This passage is among the best-known stories in the Gospels and among the hardest to preach. Many of us pastors stand up every Sunday in front of a congregation full of men and women in their Sunday best, bright countenances, with great possessions. They’re making payments on two or three cars, a house, a boat, a lake house, three or four TVs, two or three computers, cell phones, the cost of eating out five or six or ten times a week, a membership at the gym, a couple or more club memberships, health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, life insurance, and when Sunday rolls around they generously put a $20 bill into the plate. They are moral in their personal conduct, work hard, and occasionally volunteer for Vacation Bible School. So for us to stand up in the pulpit and announce that their very possessions are in the way of following Jesus is to risk not only that their countenances will fall but that they will not put that $20 in the plate and not volunteer for next year’s Vacation Bible School. We’re having a hard enough time paying the church bills and getting volunteers as it is; the last thing we want to do is run everyone off. Maybe Jesus could afford to run off potential disciples; he didn’t have a budget to keep, salaries to pay, and a building program on the drawing board. He didn’t even have a place to lay his head – no mortgages and no car payments; no TV’s, no cell phones and no insurance.

Maybe that’s the point.

Jesus was not possessed by possessions, as the man was, as we are and our churches are. The man held so tightly to his stuff, and the stuff had him so deeply enmeshed, that he couldn’t let go and grab what Jesus was offering him. Verse 21 says Jesus loved him. What if Jesus was not adding to the man’s burdens but offering him (and us) a loving and gracious invitation to new life?


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October 06, 2009

Some Pastoral Reflections on Planning (and Its Opposite)

by Mike Bowling
Some Christians are reluctant to talk about the future. While there may be 'biblical' reasons for it, that reluctance can have a destructive effect on our life together in Christ as the Church.

Whether it is the cumulative effect of misreading numerous Scriptures or an over-reaction to those who plan in arrogance and rigidity, the simple fact is that planning is an important part of all sustained work. Too many read Jesus' words "..do not be anxious about tomorrow" as "anti-planning" Scriptures, when Jesus was simply teaching that in God's kingdom we can trust in God's ultimate provision. Or, anti-planners like to reference James 4:13-17, which is more a cautionary note for those who trust in their wealth and their ability to produce wealth.

Of course, compulsive planners misuse Scriptures in similar ways. Who hasn't heard Jesus' words concerning the radical nature of discipleship twisted into an admonition concerning "sensible" financial/planning?

Everyone plans! The question is on what basis do we plan? Here are my assumptions for faithful planning as the church:

(1) I assume God is up to something which God alone knows exactly what the end will look like.

(2) I assume God has not only invited the Church into the Divine mission; God has also supplied for us in Christ to be participants.

(3) I assume God has made known in Christ the particular role of the church in God's plan (see Eph. 3:18-21).

Planning which ignores these assumptions is presumption of a risky kind, but failure to plan is its own kind of presumption, and may be a sign of lack of commitment, resistance to accountability or just plain laziness. Failure to plan may also be a sign of confusion or a fear of failure. All of the preceding call for careful instruction and difficult conversations.


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October 01, 2009

Visceral Responses

by Brian Volck
Genesis 2: 18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11 (Catholic); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12 (Revised Common); Mark 10:2-16

Texts like these that make me grateful I’m a pediatrician and not a preacher. Given the diversity of understandings and practices among Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox regarding marriage and remarriage after divorce, and the contemporary fault lines around which these and other marriage-related battles are fought, it’s dangerous to speak before anything but a homogenous congregation. As it happens, the Catholic and Revised Common lectionaries both select from the Letter to the Hebrews for the second reading this Sunday, but the verses barely overlap, so the safe road is out, too.

So, let me make one brief observation and go. The image used for marriage in Genesis and Mark is literally visceral: “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” This language is reserved for the most intimate and important relationships in the Bible: David to the tribes of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-3), Christ to humanity (John 1:14), and Christ to those gathered as the Church (Romans 12:4-5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27, Ephesians 4:11-16, and Colossians 3:14-15). This is not the language of a contractual relationship between rights-bearing individuals that the nation-state regulates as part of its interest in property and – rather farther down its list of concerns – child welfare.

In other words, the Church embodies marriage quite differently than the nation-state. One might even say that the nation-state doesn’t embody marriage at all, but sequesters it to the realm of contracts and property. In any case, I humbly suggest that future conversations among Christians about marriage and divorce take into account these stark differences in language and embodiment and decide which vision takes precedence. For instance, does it make sense for priests and ministers to serve as state functionaries at weddings, signing state documents, licenses and so forth? What is the theological basis for this?

I have no doubt well intentioned, faithful Christians may reach very different conclusions about quite a few things from this starting place, but at least they’ll know whence they’ve come. As Wendell Berry puts it, we inhabit “The Country of Marriage,” where, “Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange/of my love and work for yours, so much for so much/of an expendable fund.” Here again is Wendell Berry, to whom I’ll grant one last word:

Marriages to marriages
are joined, husband and wife
are plighted to all
husbands and wives,
any life has all lives
for its delight.


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September 25, 2009

The Koinonia Story in a Nutshell

Thanks to Church of the Servant King in Eugene, Oregon Koinonia Farm Director Bren Dubay and Ekklesia Project Director Brent Laytham met during Pentecost 2008. Bren was visiting the folks in Eugene to learn how another community shares life together. Brent was there as a guest speaker celebrating the birth of the church with Church of the Servant King. Inspired by Brent’s teaching, Bren promised she’d attend the 2008 Gathering. This led to her coming back in 2009 and co-presenting a workshop, “Doing Business for the Kingdom or the Empire,” with Chi-Ming Chien of Dayspring Technologies.

Many of those involved in the Ekklesia Project know of Koinonia Farm and Clarence Jordan. Clarence, his wife Florence and their friends Mabel and Martin England founded Koinonia (Greek for loving community) in 1942. Inspired by the Book of Acts, they wanted to live in an intentional Christian community and live out their deeply held beliefs drawn from Jesus’ teachings: peacemaking, radical sharing, and brother/ sisterhood among all people.

In the 1950s and 60s, Koinonia was fiercely challenged for these beliefs—reviled by many for its racial integration, pacifist actions, and supposed Communism. Koinonians and their children endured threats, beatings, bullets, a boycott, exile from some of the local churches and other sabotage. The community survived through prayer, a sense of humor, nonviolent resistance, and by starting a mail-order pecan business. The boycott ended in the 60s, but the pecan business remains the community’s main source of income to this day.

In the 1990s Koinonia moved away from its original vision and saw the loss of the intentional community. This loss led to times equally as challenging as those of the 1950s and 60s — some would say more challenging. But in 2005, Koinonia returned to its origins and the intentional community is thriving once more.

Koinonia is a haven of down-to-earth theology. Founding member Clarence Jordan was a farmer, Greek scholar, writer and preacher. From his writing shack in the pecan orchards, he penned translations of the New Testament from the Greek into the rural South Georgia vernacular, calling them the Cotton Patch Version. His books and lively sermons are still beloved and well-known today—and his version of Matthew has been reborn onstage as the Cotton Patch Gospel Musical.

Living out their faith, Koinonians have done many kinds of work and service over the years, responding to the needs of the times. They’ve farmed for their livelihood, exchanged friendship with neighbors (in the early days, mostly sharecroppers and tenant farmers), and welcomed guests from all over the world. Habitat for Humanity was born there, beginning in 1968 as Koinonia Partnership Housing, a project to help neighbors buy decent, simple homes, built with volunteer labor, with no interest charges. Current works include affordable home repair, events for youth and elders, organic gardening and ecology, educational offerings and as always, welcoming people to visit, intern, learn, and walk with them on the journey. Call or write if you’d like to schedule a visit, apply for an internship or find out more — www.koinoniapartners.org, 1324 GA Hwy 49 S, Americus, GA 31719, 229 938-0391.


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September 24, 2009

Loving Enemies: A Training Program

by Brian Volck
Numbers 11: (4-6, 10-16) 24-29; Psalm 19; James 5:1-6 (Catholic); 5:13-20 (Revised Common); Mark 9:38-50

“Even heretics love God, and burn
convinced that He will love them, too.
Whatever choice, I think that they have failed

to err sufficiently to witness less
than appalling welcome when – just beyond
the sear of that ecstatic blush – they turn.”

– Scott Cairns

My enemy has a portion of the truth. A portion I need. My enemy may have deformed that partial truth into an absolute (Heresy, from the Greek, hairesis, “to choose,” is an absolutized partial truth, no longer according to the whole.), but its core remains true. That’s one reason why Christians must love, rather than kill, enemies.

History, of course, demonstrates how difficult the injunction to love one’s enemies is, especially for Christians. Perhaps that’s why we’re assigned less challenging tasks as practice. Perhaps that’s why we rehearse lesser challenges in liturgy. We listen and reflect on the Word (not just the parts that please us), extend signs of peace to those who worship with us (most of whom won’t be on the guest list of our next – or any – house party), and become one Body (understood variously in different traditions) in the breaking of the bread.

Today’s readings from Numbers and Mark are about getting over ourselves, to stop fussing about the uniqueness of our place in salvation history.(Interesting, isn’t it, that Joshua, the future military leader, wants Eldad and Medad silenced. Interesting, too, what happens to Miriam soon afterward, when she questions Moses uniqueness as prophet. I leave parsing such matters to Torah scholars.) We are not the only prophets, not the only healers. My portion of the truth, however clear to me, may seem partial and opaque to you. Others, even those whose theology we find terribly wanting, are still capable of speaking and doing the Word.

Mark’s Jesus goes even further, having us cut off even our hands, our feet, our eyes if they become instruments of our personal heresies. I, at least, need frequent reminders that my most precious faculties may serve as channels of error. Flannery O’Connor’s story, “Revelation,” ends with a vision of the righteous entering heaven, surprised to find even their virtues being burned away. Scott Cairns concludes his poem, “Possible Answers to Prayer,” similarly:

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

The Letter of James provides other ways to practice love for those “who rouse our passions.” James pulls no punches in the reading Catholics hear this Sunday:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries….Behold,
the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

If this is so, the majority of Christians north of the Tropic of Capricorn have reason to weep and wail.

The selection in the Revised Common Lectionary is subtler: Pray constantly. Confess our own sins to one another. Counsel – notice it doesn’t say burn at the stake – those in error.

But what could be more revolutionary in a time, like ours, that worships health and autonomy, than anointing the sick? Yes, oil was a common treatment in first century Palestine (see the so-called Good Samaritan story), but James presents a liturgical function here, involving the elders of the church. In biblical context, ritual anointing is reserved for priests, kings and prophets. Jesus himself is “the Anointed One of God.” What James does is assign the sick person, weakened in body, mind and spirit, place of honor in the worshipping community.

This isn’t your standard Scott Osteen message, but even Mr. Osteen has a portion of the truth, however obscured by his carefully maintained exterior. We can live our best life now, or at least live a foretaste of it. The price, though, is steep, far steeper than most Christians are willing to pay: loss of autonomy, surrender of the role of “decider,” hospitality toward strangers, acceptance that God – not we – must make things come out right in the end.

It’s certainly not a path I’d choose on my own. But not walking that path, today’s readings tell us, is a waste of time.


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September 16, 2009

Kids in Church

by Debra Dean Murphy
Mark 9:30-37
(Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Images of Jesus embracing cherub-faced children have been irresistible throughout the centuries. Sentimental art within the last hundred years or so has given us the “sweet Victorian Nanny Jesus” (Philip Yancey’s memorable description), patting boys and girls on the head, admonishing them, one supposes, to eat all their vegetables and be nice to mummy.

It’s hard to set aside such treacly visuals when we hear Mark say, “Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms . . . “ It’s hard not to wax a little sentimental about Jesus, children, the church, and Christianity itself.

The observant preacher, however, will recognize that this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel is not really about children. It’s about misidentified power; it’s about an upside-down kingdom; it’s about the scandal of the cross and the way of discipleship.

But it is worth reflecting for a moment on how we understand the discipleship of children in the church and what it means to introduce them to the habit and lifelong practice of Christian worship.

Children, as we know, have a great capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around them. They readily enter the world created by a good story (and they usually know a good story from a not-so-good one).

Children need to hear the Bible’s stories in worship—not because they will understand them better there, but because that is where the stories do their formative work, shaping a people week after week, season after season, year after year. When we use the Bible’s stories to impart pious moralisms to children (“be good,” “be helpful,” be nice to your brother”) we minimize Scripture’s real purpose and power, and we fail to communicate to our children that in worship—in the hearing of the Word, the preaching of it, the performance of it through gestures, postures, and holy sign-acts—they (along with us) enter that world and have the hope of being transformed through time—God’s time—by its vision and power.

And since repetition is the key to effective pedagogy, we should regularly communicate to children (and their parents) that they are integral to the whole worshiping body; that their presence is not merely tolerated but happily anticipated. When we “dismiss” children from the worshiping body (for children’s church, say), no matter how well-intentioned our efforts at teaching them about worship may be, we convey to them and to everyone else that dividing the worshiping body is an acceptable norm.

But it is also important that worship not cater to children. Worship that seeks above all else to enact God’s story of redemption and to imagine God’s politics of peace invites and expects the participation of the whole household of faith—young and old, rich and poor, the able and the infirm—with the understanding that, in regard to young children especially, there are privileges reserved for their maturity, mysteries and riches of the worshiping life that reveal themselves as rewards for years of practice and perseverance.

Finally, we engage in the work of introducing children to worship—and overseeing their ongoing participation in it—not in an effort to make them good but that they might know who they are. And we do this with the hope that worship which is attentive to the gospel’s grand story will do its transforming work in their lives (and ours), will feed their imaginations and not their egos, and will help them (and us) learn to order our lives by the gift of God’s time.


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September 10, 2009

Setting Nature on Fire

by Halden Doerge
James 3:1-12

As a young person growing up in the evangelical church I remember always considering James to be my favorite book of the Bible. In reflecting back on why I found it so important at the time I think what drew me to James was the sort of clarity I seemed to find there. It is certainly no accident that this passage is paired in the lectionary readings with the Proverbs. Among all the books of the New Testament there is a sort of practicality to James—strong vestiges of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition.

Because of this sort of practical approachability James has long been a field ripe for memory verses and nice practical sermons. James’s statements about the tongue have been a particular source of this sort of hortative guidance for many of us. In my days in youth groups and the like it was trotted out regularly to make clear to us younglings why cussing was inexcusable for Christians.

But when looking at James more closely, there is something far more serious at work in these sayings about the dangers of the tongue. Notice the strength of James’s language: the tongue sets forests on fire, corrupts the body, indeed it even “sets the cycle of nature on fire.” What is striking about the infernal language James uses about the tongue is that it refers to the power of words to consume and destroy—most centrally to disrupt and destroy the world around us.

Given that the statements James makes about the tongue occur precisely in the context of a warning against becoming teachers (v. 1), what might we make of all this? It seems that James is not simply talking about the danger of cursing or speaking wrongly, but specifically about the dangers that attend those who speak with authority, who have power over others, just as the pilot is able to turn the whole ship and all those one it at will, simply by moving the rudder (v. 4).

What I want to suggest here is that James’s exhortation about the nature of the tongue is not simply a reproof about the deceitfulness of our own speech, but about how that deceitfulness manifests itself in positions of power. What lies at the heart of the problem James speaks of is duplicity, doubleness. This is, as we are all too aware, something that distinctly attends those in positions of power and authority. Blessing and cursing seem to always come from the mouths of our leaders whether in the church or the world.

What James underscores is the radically powerful nature of duplicitous speech in the world. Today more than ever we are aware of the power of words, and specifically of lies, to destroy and lay waste. What James draws our attention to is the radical power of ideology in our world. The way that language becomes a weapon with a will of its own, an instrument that is set on fire by hell indeed.

James’s conclusion is rather simple: “Brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (v. 10). If I may venture one more suggestion here, I would advise us to take the statement that “this ought not to be so” not merely as a wistful statement of the “Why can’t we all just get along?” variety. Rather, here James is echoing Jesus’s own statements about the nature of power:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Matt 20:25-28)

As James is quick to remind us, “we all make many mistakes.” We are called to refuse the form of power that is practiced in the ideologies that set nature on fire all around us. The deceitful words of those in power, the words of blessing and cursing from the same mouth, these the words we are called to reject. This is why Christians should always be the most reluctant to speak with authority, the slowest to claim that their words should be obeyed. The words that set the world on fire all to often come from our own lips. As we seek to follow after the Messiah who told is that “it will not be so among you” we do well to listen to James as we strive to be wells that produce fresh water and fresh water alone.


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September 01, 2009

The Kingdom’s Gatekeepers

by Jenny Williams
James 2:1-10, 11-17; Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Ouch. James must have been visiting churches in North America, where in addition to race, the other great divider on Sunday morning is class. He upbraids the congregation for gatekeeping by the way they treat visitors at their worship services. They give preferential treatment to rich visitors and fling spiritual platitudes toward poor visitors. “We’ll pray for you,” we good Christians say, without much regard to which of their physical needs we can meet.

After working last fall in a small village in the West Bank, I became friends with a Melkite Palestinian priest there. I was surprised to discover he held many of the convictions shared by we Ekklesia Project folk: beliefs that liturgy forms us, that liturgy should take us outside the four walls of the church, that we ought to stand in solidarity with the poor.

He once expressed his skepticism of the church hierarchy. He said, “I do not like the Bishops in general because they do not daily meet with the poor. They see the world secretly from behind dark glass.” When bishops visited the villages, he explained, they were chauffeured in limos with tinted windows, and never got out of the car to interact with the townspeople.

By North American standards, this Palestinian priest is poor. Out of his monthly salary of US$1000, he is to support his family of six as well as meet needs of people in the community. He does amazing work in his village, working with Christians and Muslims alike. He runs programs for children and youth in the summer, assists people with medical expenses, and buys olives from farmers whose livelihoods are now diminished because of the separation barrier erected by the Israeli military. The olives go into a soap sold by his church to raise funds to send children to school.

In her lecture at this year’s Gathering, Kathy Grieb cited statistics which showed that people with less income are more generous supporters of churches and charities than people with more income.

A clergy friend told me a story about a middle-class church that began a food pantry and eventually added a clothing closet. Some of the clients who patronized the pantry and closet eventually ended up volunteering with those ministries as a way to give back the help that had been given to them. Such was the case with Sally, one of the pantry’s original patrons who became one of their regular volunteers.

One day when Sally was working at the food pantry, a destitute woman came into the clothes closet. Her trailer had burned down, and she didn’t have anything. The church members were able to quickly help her with what she needed, with the exception of shoes, because they didn’t have any at the time. They scurried around wondering aloud what they could do about the shoes, asking questions of each other like “Does anyone know of anybody who is planning to donate some shoes but just hasn’t brought them in yet?” and “I wonder if one of the merchants in town would be willing to donate a pair of shoes?” Sally walked into the room, discovered what was going on, and asked the client what size shoes she needed. “Seven-and-a-half,” the woman replied. Sally took off her own shoes, handed them to the woman, and said, “Here. We wear the same size.” She, who did not have much at all, gave the shoes off her feet.

Perhaps our upper- or middle-class churches could learn from Sally or the priest. What we have is not really ours. We servants just care for things for a time while the master is away, and we’re supposed to care for them in a way that pleases our Master.

Fall is upon us—a time when Stewardship Campaigns rear their ugly heads. Perhaps this text can push us beyond the kind of stewardship that has us write checks to our churches, and toward a kind of stewardship that asks us to give up our shoes to people who need them. Coming face to face with someone in need and trying to meet that need in a way that maintains the other person’s dignity is difficult. It involves a relationship. It’s easier to donate money or canned food to an organization, which keeps us a safe distance from the messy realities of the lives of our neighbors.

In this area of our discipleship, we tend toward the wide gate. The path is easy, but it leads to destruction. The challenge is to enter the narrow gate, which has a hard road but it leads to life. Perhaps only few can find this gate because the poor are standing around it, and we’d rather not walk near them. “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Proverbs 22:22-23).

If we avoid people in need and instead choose the wide gate, the easy road will lead to not only our own destruction, but to the destruction of the neglected ones who are gathered around the narrow gate to the Kingdom.


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August 26, 2009

Preparing for the Gift

by Ragan Sutterfield
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

A good farmer is one who knows what he can do and what he can’t. He can work the soil, build compost, mulch, but the growth of healthy plants is always at the mercy of conditions beyond him—the right amount of rain, the right weather at planting time, the right conditions at the harvest. The good farmer knows that a healthy crop is always both the product of hard work and a gift beyond any system of exchange.

We are brought to this paradox of gift and work by the lectionary readings for this Sunday as we wrestle with our relationship with God, the Law, and our hearts.

In Deuteronomy we begin this struggle as Israel is called to follow the “statutes and ordinances” of God. This is the work they must do in order to receive the gift of entering the promise land. But the work is not an abstract following of rules—it is the concrete witness of God’s presence with Israel. As Deuteronomy 4:6-7 says:

You must observe [the statutes] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say,“Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him.

By following the Law, Israel is preparing the ground for God’s presence and bearing witness to the gift of that presence. But Moses is well aware of the possibility that the gift will be forgotten and that Israel will think only of the work of keeping statutes, like dead taboos that have lost their meaning.

It is for this reason that Moses tells Israel to “take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life.” It is by recollecting themselves to the gift of God’s presence, and what that has looked like in their lives, that they can continue to bear witness to that gift through following the Law.

David echoes this in Psalm 15 as he asks God “who may abide in your tent?” Who can live in God’s presence? His answer is those who “do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart.” Those who are righteous in this way, David tells us, “stand by their oath even to their hurt” and “do not lend money at interest.” This commitment to generosity is more, I believe, than simply a following of the statutes of the Law. It is a response to the gift of God’s presence; a gift that we cannot begin to repay.

This gift seems to have been forgotten as Jesus and his disciples meet the scribes and Pharisees in Mark 7. The scribes and Pharisees see some of the disciples eating without washing their hands and they go to Jesus to ask him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” Their question is centered solely on the maintenance of ethnic identity through purity laws that have become little more than exclusionary taboos. Jesus returns the emphasis to God by saying to the scribes and Pharisees, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” It is the heart, the deeper reality behind the Law, that gives it its meaning. Without that, the law becomes meaningless and the gift goes unrecognized. The conditions that prepare for the gift then become at best the monotonous preservation of the way things have always been or at worst a short cut to the benefits of the gift. Here the statutes of Israel become the markers of Israel’s ethnic identity rather than markers of the gift of God’s presence.

James rounds out the lectionary readings by again reminding us that “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above.” It is our role to prepare our hearts for this gift so that from the ground of our hearts God can grow righteousness. In order to prepare our hearts James tells us that we need to do some weeding by ridding ourselves of the “rank growth of wickedness.” This weeding allows our hearts to become fertile soil so that we can “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.”

This receptiveness, recognizing that it is God who gives us every perfect gift, is then reflected in our lives by living in a new economy, an economy of the gift. We are poor in spirit, out of power, owing everything and owning nothing. And yet because all we have are gifts we are able to openly share those gifts by caring for “orphans and widows in their distress,” giving and caring and sharing with those who are most vulnerable in our society. In this way we are recollected to all that God has done for us, the Egypts he has brought us out of. In gratitude we respond to his call, marking ourselves as members of his kingdom and economy, by keeping to the rules of his system of exchange.


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August 19, 2009

What to Wear in Battle

by Doug Lee
1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

The culmination to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians has ample capacity either to thrill or repulse us. For those who already envision themselves locked in a mortal struggle against enemies of various stripes, Paul’s use of militaristic imagery fits and heartens. But for those who find the very thought of warfare hateful, even or especially against the demonic, this text chills and embarrasses.

But perhaps, in both cases, we get off on the wrong foot with Paul’s battlefield imagery. We begin with instincts formed by the kind of power that dominates our world instead of the power that fires Paul’s imagination. We can hear Paul’s exhortations to “be strong in the Lord” and to “put on the whole armor of God” much as we might hear admonitions from TV car ads that promise us that their vehicle will help us feel “safe in an unsafe world.” In this vein, Paul merely calls us to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong and to engage in more of the self-protective patterns we already practice. Since God was the one who provided us with our leverage, it follows that we must employ these sources of strength in our struggle.

But what I have often missed amid the more dramatic language of flaming arrows and cosmic powers is that the one who speaks of being strong is not an American whose life is secured by an empire or the economy. He is instead “an ambassador in chains.”

Ever since Inauguration Day, the American public has been fed a steady stream of images of Hillary Clinton jetting around the world and meeting heads of state and their populaces. From Baghdad to Mumbai to Abuja, she has announced the new administration’s message of change with a mixture of seriousness, charm, and moral superiority. But try imagining Hillary trading in her trademark pantsuits for a orange jumpsuit and her global jetsetting for house arrest, and what you get is an absurdity. Diplomats can’t project American power if they are prisoners. You can only talk softly when you carry a big stick, not when you are handcuffed.

But if this ambassador in chains commends being strong in the Lord to a frail and numerically unimpressive, socially marginalized 1st century Church, then he must calling into question our forms of strength.

Critical to hearing Paul is the fact that the armor is not merely supplied by God; it is the armor worn by God and His Messiah. Paul borrows images from Isaiah to depict how the Church is to clothe herself with the very character of God. Thus, the belt the Church fastens around her waist is none other than the belt of truth worn by the Messiah in battle. This is the truth revealed in the gospel that announces the end of the dark age of deceitful scheming and deluding lusts. To put on the belt of truth and the rest is to be clothed with the new self created in the likeness of God. To wear the whole armor of God is not to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong but to be strong in the way that the Jesus is strong.

Even more to the point, Paul’s exhortation to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power” can only be heard in light of the power God employed in raising Christ from the dead and exalting him to His right hand. This is clearly not power in an any visible form we possess. It is nonetheless the power at work in the Church.

Perhaps when we try to appreciate that the power of the Resurrection is at work in fallible people like us and our fellow congregation members, we ascribe this power to the realm of the “spiritual” or “heavenly” because we cannot imagine how such power can be at work among earthy creatures like us.

Once again, Paul does not allow us to reach for what we are already so certain of. In mystery, this cosmic battle is taking place even as we engage in earthly, fleshly conduct. The battlelines drawn by Paul in the rest of Ephesians run through our everyday speech and relationships. The new self (a.k.a. the whole armor of God) we are to be clothed with looks a lot like telling the truth, sharing with the needy, and building up others through our speech. It looks like living in unity and reconciliation within our communities. The cosmic imagery at the end of Ephesians cannot be divorced from the earthiness of what precedes it.

Can such mundane and ordinary practices as speaking and acting graciously really be the expressions of cosmic power?

In an age of anxiety, we feel more subject to invisible forces than ever before and can instinctively reach for every available layer of armor and insulation we can. But the gospel Paul proclaims identifies our acts of self-protection as works of darkness, which ultimately do not make us safe. Though the powers and principalities seek to intimidate the Church into forsaking her holy calling, she can testify in the deceptively small acts of peace and generosity that these powers will not stand. Humility, gentleness, and patience look pretty feeble in a post-9/11 world until we recognize that these were the same armaments worn by our Risen Lord.


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