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Do Not Try This Alone: A Sermon for Lent I

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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 →

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

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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 →

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Ordaining Jesus

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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.

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Selling Snake Oil

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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 →

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In defense of Bob Bentley

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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 →

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Sappy Christmas Movies

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“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 →

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Some reflections on church vitality

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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 →

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The Converted Community

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The names of other gods got worked into the Hebrew religion. How’s that for the most boring sermon lead in ever? The names of other gods got worked into the Hebrew religion, for example the Canaanite word El, which we find not only in titles like Elohim and El Shaddai, in place names like Bethel and Israel, but also in people’s names like Daniel and Michael, names that in the original Hebrew spoke of the person’s relationship to God. But the oldest name for God seems to be Yahweh, a name connected with Israel’s time in Egypt, connected with the Midianites. You see, that wicked revolutionary Moses lead his small rag-tag band of slaves out of Egypt, and in the process Moses came to know the name of the God of Abraham, of the Patriarchs. In Hebrew it is something like the letters YHWH, and we have interpreted this ancient unspeakable name, this name without vowels, as Yahweh, and we dare speak it, we sophisticated modern folks who don’t believe that names have magic.

This ancient name, Yahweh, has been interpreted into modern languages. We refer to God as “I AM,” or maybe as “I AM WHO I AM.” This is a statement of being. But while I was in divinity school, some scholars suggested that in ancient times it could just as easily have been read “I AM BECOMING.” Because of complexities of tense and case in ancient Hebrew that are far beyond my understanding, these scholars argue that the verb is progressive. God is not static, God is becoming. And when I first heard this I thought “well all right then… this is a theology I can deal with, this is a God I can love.” Not the static scary god concept we stole from the Greek philosophers and tried to shove down on Yahweh, nope, this was a living God. “I AM BECOMING.” Well God, so am I, through your grace, so am I. Continue reading →

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Funeral Sermon for My Father

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Note: Dad died on January 25th, 2010. It was the first funeral sermon I ever delivered.

Protestant Theologian Karl Barth once wrote about the difficulty of the preacher’s task. According to Barth, before the preacher sat the Scripture, the Word of God, mystery beyond all understanding. And just past the Scripture sat the body of Christ, the congregation, mystery beyond all understanding. I wonder what Barth might have made of the funeral sermon, where the mystery of the Word and the mystery of the congregation contemplates the mystery of eternal life.

For it is eternal life that we are here to contemplate. The Christian pilgrim has completed his earthly journey and has gone home, to the source of his life, to the source of all life. And it is worth reviewing that life as we consider our own journeys.

Dad’s early life was not easy. While he was still a child his father, a Norfolk police officer, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The entire family was uprooted and moved to New Mexico. There was grueling poverty, many nights Dad had only a piece of fried fat back and a single potato to eat. It was all to no avail, for his father would never recover. After Dad’s father died the family moved back east… times were still tough, and there were more moves. As soon as he was able to he escaped, enlisting in the Army. He had been promised he would not be sent to Korea, so of course, that is exactly where they sent him. During one firefight he was shot through both legs while his buddy, standing next to him, was killed. Dad was young and angry and refused the Purple Heart. He was patched up and returned to combat, surviving the war and returning to Tidewater. Continue reading →

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Feltboard Jesus

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Let me begin with a confession of sorts. Like many of our lectionary texts, this readings starts rather abruptly. I have taken the liberty of adding some of the context to verse 30. It actually reads “they went on from there,” but few of us would have remembered where “there” was, though we might have guessed about the “they.” I point this out because details are important, context is important, and I will be starting from a seemingly small detail.

But before I get there, I want to stir up some memories. How many of you remember felt-board Jesus? Of course, there was also a felt-board Pharaoh and Moses, a felt-board Paul. The felt-board was a common Sunday School teaching tool of an earlier age… today its Powerpoint Jesus, DVD Jesus! And how many of you remember the paintings of Jesus that hung on the Sunday School walls? If you were raised in the Roman church the images might have been of the Sacred Heart, scary in its own way. For many Protestants you had either creepy Jesus or wimpy Jesus. Creepy Jesus had long flowing hair that looked like it belonged in a shampoo commercial, and blue eyes, eyes that followed you no matter where you went in the room. Then there was wimpy Jesus, sitting on a hillside surrounded by children and lambs. This Jesus didn’t confront Empire, overturn the human-made systems of oppression. This Jesus clearly ran a daycare and petting zoo! No wonder generations of boys fled from the church at the first opportunity, continue to flee from the church! I have no idea when these tropes worked their way into Christian culture… maybe it was when we went from being the subversive outsiders to being the establishment, though that seems too easy of an answer. But there it is… Jesus with the children… just like in today’s reading. Continue reading →

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