by

Dunkin’ & Sprinklin

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

June 5th, 2011

God’s great creation is an amazing thing, isn’t it? Take, for example, DNA, those little chains of data that make us who we are, at least the physical part of what we are. That double helix of genetic data unzips, replicates, mutates, and, combined with a process called natural selection, produces a vast array of plants and animals that are more or less adapted to their context. It was DNA and natural selection that gave us our thumbs, these amazing opposable thumbs that sent us rocketing up the evolutionary tree, these thumbs that our cats envy… if only cats had thumbs they could open those cans, never mind that they still wouldn’t be able to read the labels to open the right cans! No, thumbs are just plain amazing, hands are just plain amazing, and with these hands, in just a few minutes, I will baptize a child. But for all the seeming magic of DNA and natural selection, for all of the miracle that is every moment in God’s creation, there is nothing magical about these hands. They’re just plain old hands, no different from yours… hands that cook and clean and paint and scratch and do all sorts of other human things you probably don’t want to hear about. So if these hands aren’t magical, it might be worth thinking about what is going to happen in this act of baptism. Continue reading →

by

Waltzing through the valley of the shadow of death

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

a sermon delivered  on April 3rd, 2011

We are all familiar with the stories of Jesus’ earthly ministry, with his teaching and feeding and healing. I’d like to start by looking at one particular story. Jesus came upon a man near the entrance of the synagogue. The man was on a mat and was crippled. The man said to Jesus, “Master, I know that if you wish to, you can make me whole again.” And Jesus said to the man, “You just sit there on your mat. But I forgive your sins, and if you believe in me, and give a portion of the alms given to you by passersby, then, after your miserable life has ended, you’ll go to heaven, and there will be angels carrying trays of manna, and the dog you had as a child will be there, and everyone you have ever known will be waiting for you. But in the meantime, just sit there on your mat and suffer. It’ll build character. It’s good for you.” And Jesus walked away, and the crippled man lived for the day he would die and go to heaven. Continue reading →

by

Defining the Bible

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

It seems like a silly exercise, attempting to define a text that is so hotly contested. But you are always at a disadvantage when you have to debate using the terms of your opponent, and the Protestant Mainline has for too long allowed the proponents of the selective literalist heresy (the so-called “fundamentalists”) to define the terms. We speak in rebuttal, state what scripture is not, but rarely do we make a positive claim about scripture. I believe that if we are to re-engage scripture in a deep and meaningful way, in a way that allows us to seek biblical guidance for our very different contexts, we must have some operating definition of this pillar of Protestant belief. So consider this a working draft, a synthesis of the many responses I have given to Christians of every stripe, from my UCC sisters and brothers to members of the radicalized religious right, when asked to define my understanding of “The Bible.”

I would love to hear from colleagues and friends who can help me clarify and correct. This post will not be acceptable to those readers who belong to a religious trajectory that is in fundamental disagreement, especially one that claims a perfect text or interpretation. This is not the forum for that debate. Many blessings- Gary

The Holy Bible is a collection of religious writings composed and edited over a period of a thousand plus years. It tells the story of multiple trajectories of belief, all originating with a Semitic people commonly known as the Hebrews. The earliest texts, composed (with small exceptions) in Hebrew, are shared by both the religious trajectory known as Christianity and the trajectory known as Rabbinic Judaism, with both groups adding material in the years after the Jewish War (approx. 70 CE) to create an accepted canon. In the Christian tradition the additional materials were composed in Greek and are referred to as the “new” testament or covenant. This material reflects the belief that Jesus (circa -3 CE to 30 CE)  initiated or taught a new relationship between humans and the divine, telling the story of his earthly ministry and collecting documents from early Christian communities.

The texts preserve multiple understandings of the human relationship with the divine. Conceptions of God recorded in scripture include belief in multiple deities, in a  universalist monotheism, in an anthropomorphic deity filled with ego and rage, in a Platonic deity that is unchanging and incapable of relationship. The texts include history, poetry, fiction, legal codes and correspondence, and often reveal more about the historical and cultural contexts in which they were composed and edited than in the era they pretend to cover. The Bible is the story of the winners, the version accepted by those whose understanding became authorized, that was associated with earthly power, yet in its pages can be found alternative narratives, the voices of the oppressed and marginalized. At it’s best, the Bible is intimate and compelling, a very human story of the individual and communal search for right relationship with God. At it’s worst, the Bible is a tool for the creation of false gods, of idols onto which we project our own desires and prejudices.

The Bible is composed of ancient texts written in ancient languages and recovered in multiple versions of often fragmentary manuscripts. There has never been a single universally accepted version or translation of these texts, as no such Bible ever existed. There is no single authorized interpretation.

Contemporary Christians must use caution when attempting to interpret this ancient complex text, placing passages in their original context as well as following the theological trajectories in the two millennia since the text took it basic form. Progressive Christians can gain the most in their engagement with scripture when they combine the technical knowledge of scriptural interpretation with their own context as a living and practicing covenant community.

by

Do Not Try This Alone: A Sermon for Lent I

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

When visiting a new congregation I like to show off my sense of humor, trying to offer a nice mix of comfort and challenge, so I spent much of the week looking for something light-hearted and funny to say about the first Sunday of Lent. “Satan walked into a bar,” “Knock knock. Who’s there? Temptation.” You won’t be surprised to hear that none of these worked out. To tell you the truth, sin and temptation just aren’t funny. It is hard to do an upbeat sermon for Lent.

We have become accustomed to avoiding the subject of sin lest we make someone uncomfortable. In an age of religion-consumers, we try to keep things happy. And we certainly we need some comfort and happy in our lives. It sometimes feels as if we are under constant assault, as if beloved institutions and systems have been corrupted by a “me-first” culture. But even in dark times, the Way of Jesus demands that we avoid corruption and sin. So, yes, this is a sermon about sin. Those who were contemplating a nap might want to settle in.

This past Wednesday I opened the newspaper to the “Dear Abby” column and got quite a shock. A single gay man explained to Abby his discomfort at being sexually propositioned by a heterosexual couple. No matter what you might think about same-sex relationships, the question and Abby’s response were about the ethics of inviting someone into adultery, as if adultery could ever be ethical. In fact, as a country music fan, I have become increasingly alarmed at lyrics which condone sex outside of a covenanted relationship. Maybe I’m just old fashioned, but I preferred the day when country songs condemned rather than celebrated that lyin’ cheating dog of a man. Continue reading →

by

Team Edward Snooki Samson Soprano: A Sermon for March 6th

1 comment

Categories: Main Blog

Today’s gospel lesson, the Transfiguration as recorded in Matthew, is a troubling text. For most of us, it doesn’t feel right at all. While Jesus performs miracles, this sort of appearance of figures from Israel’s distant past… well, it’s just not on, is bizarre and unique. It may make you feel a little better to know that many scripture scholars find this text odd as well. In many technical ways the Transfiguration is not like other divine interventions in the synoptic gospels.

I believe, however, that we can decipher this text. Let us first turn our attention to Elijah, and the mystery of why Ahab is recorded as being the worst of all kings. This has also been a troubling text. Ahab was a pretty bad king, but others were pretty bad too. It turns out that just after Elijah oversees the mass murder of the priests of Baal, he takes Ahab up the mountain to renew the covenant with Yahweh. This overlooked text is carefully modeled on the incident in Exodus where Moses takes the leaders of the Exodus people up the mountain to eat and seal the covenant. Ahab is the worst of all kings because he is given an opportunity to renew covenant and then falls back into disobedience and sin. Elijah is not just a great prophet, he is a covenant-maker. Now we know why Elijah shows up in this threesome, what connects these three figures. Continue reading →

by

Ordaining Jesus

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

Many pastors find themselves in an interesting dilemma. We have been prepared for a model of institutional church that has lost its adaptability, and hence its vitality. We continue to love and serve that church, even though doing so often means our job becomes preserving our job… doing almost anything to keep those already in the church happy and comfortable, even if in so doing we must abandon the passion, the fire, the transgressive aspects of the gospel. I believe that much of our ministerial formation, be it denominational process or seminary education, is geared toward a defensive ministry. It is all we can do to keep this consumer-driven Enlightenment/Modernity model afloat.

Yet the Spirit is stirring. New forms of Christianity are emerging. Some are returning to ancient practices, are experimenting with new ways of structuring covenant communities. Many of our denominations are ill-prepared to incubate and embrace these new forms.

So my question is this. Would your ministerial formation process ordain Jesus?

It is time for those who embrace the new church to address the question of ministerial formation, offering re-training for those who wish to get on board as well as clearing the way within our denominational and educational structures for new styles and models of ordained ministry.

I have watched skilled ministers struggle implementing new church models because they themselves were not adequately prepared, because they approached vitality as tips and tricks rather than as a huge shift in which human need and practical theology intersect.

Who knows what new models of ministry may develop? Who knows what prophets we might embrace? One thing is clear: the new church cannot be born if we do not prepare a new style of leader to shepherd it.

by

Selling Snake Oil

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

Okay, it’s really not that complicated. Prosperity Theology is wrong. It has no place in the Christian tradition, and is as much a heresy as the selective literalism (fundamentalism) of the radicalized right. In order to preach prosperity theology you must avoid Jesus, avoid the Acts of the Apostles or Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, you have to reach back to the Hebrew Testament, abandoning the Gospel. This is important, because our scriptures contain an evolving understanding of humankind’s relationship with the divine, with our place before our Creator. The earliest theologies encoded in the Hebrew Scriptures were henotheistic (multiple gods, but the tribe only had one god) and equated faithful duty to the tribe’s God as a requirement for worldly success. If Israel was faithful, it would be a militarily strong and rich nation (we see the modern version of this primitive theology in Fred Phelps and his hatemongers from Westboro Baptist). And when Israel was not strong and rich, when there were famines and invasions, the logical explanation was to be found in covenant breaking by the people. And, of course, let us not forget that guilt was passed on from generation to generation, not just in the collective, but to the individual. A child could be punished for the sins of the parent, for generations even, guilt transferred up and down the generations.

By the time of the Exile this theology had already changed dramatically. The theological trajectory of the major prophets came to understand God as a single and good being, what we might loosely label “ethical monotheism.” They also moved away from collective guilt to individual accountability. No longer would a child be punished for the sins of the parent. Even the strong connection between faithful adherence to the covenant and worldly success softened, as it became clear that some individuals behaved faithfully and still suffered in this life.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry we see a complete dismantling of these early theologies. Blood guilt is gone (though it is re-introduced in the form of “original sin” centuries later) and faith no longer means worldly success. In fact, the Gospels make clear that many will suffer for their faith!

None of this should come as a shock to the average Mainline Protestant. We may not be as skilled as we might like at following the trajectory, at sorting through the scripture with its diversity of belief and disorder, but we know that Jesus never promises Simon Peter a mansion and  jewels. But many Christians have been following the prosperity heresy in recent years, and the greatest huckster leading people away from Christ has been Joel Osteen. Continue reading →

by

In defense of Bob Bentley

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

As improbable as it may seem, I find myself wanting to defend Bob Bentley, the Republican governor of Alabama. In fact, despite stewing on this for days, I just can’t let it go.

As some of you may know, Bentley’s inauguration coincided with The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. (Funny how we have stripped the Reverend King of this title in our public discourse, though it was King’s Christian commitments that drove his work.) Speaking that day in a Baptist church once pastored by Rev. King, Bentley stated that fellow Christians were his brothers and sisters, and that this relationship was different than the relationship he shares with non-Christians.

There was an immediate public outcry… how could he possibly be the governor for all citizens of Alabama if he claimed a special relationship with one religious group? Even Glenn Beck joined the chorus damning the governor. (Would he have been so condemned if he had asserted his membership in any other identity group?)

I have read every article I can find on this “gaffe.” I have been unable to find any mention of this event stating that it was an interfaith, multicultural or civic function. As far as I can tell, and it certainly seems implied in all of the coverage so far, Bentley spoke as a Baptist Christian to fellow Baptist Christians in a Baptist Christian setting, using the theologically laden language of the Christian tradition. (If this was a civic event, then Bentley might have, in fact should have, chosen differently, avoiding the coded-language of his own tradition.) Continue reading →

by

Sappy Christmas Movies

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;”
-from “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

I have a confession to make. I love sappy Christmas movies. You know the ones… a parent is dead, a mortgage can’t be paid, a child is long lost… and then miracle! All is made right, by an angel, by some vague Christmas magic, by Saint Nick and always by God. The widower finds new love, money falls from the sky, lessons are learned, bells ring, candles flicker, and as the final credits roll, I wipe a tear or two… or ten, from my eyes. My television is tuned to Hallmark or Lifetime or ABC Family almost every night during the weeks before Christmas.

Now, most folks wouldn’t think of me as a sentimental guy. I come across as a little bookish, a little too grounded in my Y-chromosome to ever watch sappy Christmas movies. But I love them. They are to me what this season is all about. I’m a big fan of the “hopey-changey” thing. Advent is that season when we remember “Emmanuel,” the God-that-is-with-us. And that God, the God of the Incarnation, walks with us and feels with us and flames out glory and hope and miracle throughout the year. As Hopkins wrote over a century ago, the world is indeed charged with the grandeur of God. Continue reading →

by

Some reflections on church vitality

No comments yet

Categories: Main Blog

Every church is unique, a blend of gifts, traditions and challenges. Any efforts to re-vitalize a declining congregation must be adapted to the local context. This all goes without saying, and so it is rarely said. There are, however, some lessons to be learned from churches that have seen success, and those who have struggled. Below are some reflections based on my own experiences in healthy, re-vitalizing and declining congregations. They are not hard and fast… we are all learning and exploring, trying to find our way to the church of the next age.

  1. Forget the tips and tricks. No multimedia screen, praise band or charismatic pastor is going to turn your church around. If your objective is to add members purely to keep the church alive in its present form, to fill committee slots and increase pledge units, you’re doomed. To transform your church you must transform yourself, must transform your faith. Remember, the church is not the building or the history. It is a living thing, the Body of Christ breathed into existence by the Spirit two-thousand years ago and existing in countless forms, serving a Living God. And being alive means change. Which leads to… Continue reading →

1 2 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21