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On the Death of Batman: A Newsletter Article

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The news media has recently reported that DC Comics will be killing Batman in a coming issue. This might not seem like a big deal to you. After all, while Batman has become an icon in the American Media Culture, our children no longer read comic books. Only a handful of adults continue to care about this medium, with its mixture of the visual and textual, of archetype and narrative. This has resulted in books with an adult aesthetic, with gritty, violent and profane stories, which in turn makes the books less accessible to children. An excellent and recent children’s novel, Mascot to the Rescue, bemoans the state of comics while still showing how the books create meaning in the life of one little boy.I should be upfront and say that I am part of that small group of adults who still cares about comics. To be fair, I stopped collecting when I entered Divinity School, but my collection covers three of decades and thousands of issues, the majority of which feature Batman. Continue reading →

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A Pastoral Prayer

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Let us join together with the people of God in all nations, in all places, as we offers our prayers of praise and petition:Loving God
We are on a schedule
We are a temporal people
Chained to our watches
In control

And then there is you
Your time surprises us
Like a thief in the night
Like the pangs of birth

We thank you for your time
For your kingdom
For the Son of Man

Bless this day the church
Millions who are committed to your time
Who let go for moments
Who sit before you in prayer
Bless especially those who serve the church
Fill them with Spirit
Fill them with love Continue reading →

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Borderlines

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Jeremiah. 23:5-6 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”

You might have noticed that the two scripture readings don’t seem to go together, that in fact they seem to contradict one another. Now, in case you were momentarily distracted, let’s recap. In the first reading, taken from the First Book of Samuel, the loose confederation of Israelite tribes come to Samuel, judge and prophet, and ask for a king. They have good reasons, the Philistines have moved into the region with advanced technologies and are putting pressure on the western border. Samuel warns them that a king is not God’s plan for the people, but they insist. Even though this text was written in the centuries after a monarchy was established, it records the uneasiness the people still felt about loyalty to anyone other than God.

The second reading was written five centuries later. The United Kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon had been torn in two. The Northern Kingdom called Israel had fallen, and the Southern Kingdom, Judah, was at risk, with invaders at the gate. In this reading, God promised through his prophet Jeremiah to raise up a new king for his people. Monarchy had become the theological model from which the Judeans operated. So when the people were in trouble, it was up to a great king, an anointed one, a messiah, to rescue them. Unlike the people of the exodus, these people believed that God worked indirectly, through others, through chosen kings.

The readings suggest that God changed plans, though we have adopted from Hellenism an unfortunate notion of a God that cannot ever change. The truth is that the Israelite religion is a trajectory of change. God creates a covenant with one small tribe through one man, Abraham. Then God creates a new covenant with that tribe through all members when he frees them from bondage, a covenant mediated by Moses but executed by the people. Then God changes models again and creates a covenant with a single household through one man with the Davidic covenant. We could fall back on the oft repeated trope “God planned it all that way,” but that would leave no room for human freedom, only a puppet-master God, one that seems less than worthy of our love. So what are we to make of all of this change? Continue reading →

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Billings Sermon

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This is the sermon I preached in the Divinity Hall pulpit on Thursday (where Emerson gave the Divinity School Address!) as part of the 2008 Billings Preaching Prize competition. It is really just a shorter version of a sermon I preached at First Cambridge last April. I made the finals this year, which will be held April 23rd, but I honestly don’t think I’ll win. I’m up against my dear friend Sheila, or as I like to think of her, “the Rev.” She’s a grandmother from Brooklyn, and wow does she have the Spirit!

(Update: Sheila did, in fact, win the Billings Prize, one of Harvard’s oldest awards, for “eloquence in the pulpit.” I am very happy to have been among the finalists, as the finals sermons were all amazing, and filled with God’s Word.)

The Sermon

The standard sermon for the story of Doubting Thomas goes something like this: Poor Thomas, he just didn’t have enough faith. It’s a good thing we have enough faith. Yeah us! Or maybe, I know you’re having a hard time believing the teachings of the church in light of the real world, but don’t be a doubting Thomas. This is not going to be that standard sermon.

Now, let’s imagine for a moment that I’m an author, and the Gospel of John is in manuscript form, and here I am sitting before my editor waiting to hear the magic words: cash advance. But instead what I hear is: “Let’s talk about the motivation of Thomas in the final chapter. I’m not sure you’ve made your case. The man has seen Lazarus raised from the dead, the storm stilled, walking on water, miracle after miracle. Why doesn’t he believe now? It’s just not plausible.”

We probably all feel a bit like my fictional editor. Just because something happened while I was out getting the milk and bread doesn’t mean I don’t believe it. Judas Didymus Thomas has been with these folks, these women and men traveling with and learning from Jesus, for several years. They’ve been through some amazing times together. And they’ve seen miracles, they’ve seen death defeated. So why doubt now? Continue reading →

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The Infield Fly Rule

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I’m putting up a couple of short sermons. First is the sermon I will be preaching tomorrow, Baseball Sunday. We’ve invited folks to wear their uniforms, team colors, etc, and to bring their equipment. 

Sermon
Baseball Sunday- April 13, 2008
Gary Brinn, Pastoral Intern

You might be wondering what baseball has to do with being a Christian. Well you could say that our whole story starts in the big inning, that Eve stole first and Adam stole second, and there was that incident with Gideon and the pitchers. But that would be silliness, and we’ll have none of that!

Actually baseball, or at least the ideas behind the sport, have a lot to do with being a Christian, and no, I don’t mean the competition, nor do I believe that God cares whether my overpaid professional athlete beats your overpaid professional athlete. But I do believe that baseball calls on us to celebrate this amazing creation, nature and ourselves, these amazing bodies. Sure, we sometimes have a disagreeable relationship with these bodies. They break down, ache, eventually they all will fail. But life is good, and these bodies, these amazing miracles, are a gift from God, a gift that Jesus took on himself when he walked among us. Of course, Jesus had a task in mind when he became human like us, but imagine the sensory delights of being one of us, the caress of his feet being washed, the taste of the salted fish, the texture of the sand as he bent down and wrote while challenging those who would throw stones. These bodies are amazing, and at their best they are agile and swift like David with his sling, the young athlete facing the great adversary.

But this sermon is not about the miracle of the body. It is about the infield fly rule and our covenant through Christ. To begin with, I’ll need to explain the rule. If a ball is hit and pops up so that it is a fly ball that will come down in the infield, the batter is automatically out, the umpire simply signals that the rule is in effect. Now you may ask why, after all, a pop-up that is in foul territory must be caught, even if it requires that the catcher run into the television cameras, that Jeter dive into the stands. The reason for the rule is this. If a ball is popped up in the infield and there is a runner on base, the infielders would be rewarded for NOT catching the ball. You see, if they catch the ball, only the batter is out. But if they drop it, they stand a very good chance of making a double play, getting two outs for NOT performing to the best of their ability. And every player, after a certain level of play, CAN make that catch. So without the infield fly rule, players are not rewarded for doing their best, they are rewarded for failing. It may not surprise you that the leagues with the youngest players do not have the infield fly rule, because there is no guarantee that they’ll make the catch, and if they hit a fly ball in the first place, its likely as not to come down in the infield. Continue reading →

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Nothing New Under the Sun

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Below is my sermon for the ecumenical Easter Sunrise Service tomorrow morning. There might be nothing new under the sun, and there is certainly nothing new in this sermon, but some of these folks will not have heard me drone on about the same old things, read from the same old texts…

Easter Sunrise Sermon 2008
J. Gary Brinn

The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, Verses 1 to 11.

On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them:
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the women with them who told this to the other apostles.
But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
This is the Good News of our Savior, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God. Amen.

Under the old Law, under the purity codes and sacrifices designed to sustain the economy of the Temple’s bloated bureaucracy, uncleanliness was contagious. If I were to touch a dead body and then touch you, I would become unclean and you would “catch” the uncleanliness, which you could then spread to the others, an epidemic of impurity. To be sure, prophets consistently argued against this system of sacrifice and artificial purity, offering instead a religion of humility and love, but it just didn’t take. Humans were, and still are, all about creating categories and rules to decide us versus them. To be sure, John the Baptizer suggested a spiritual purity, a cleansing repentance, but most people still thought of uncleanliness as contagious. And then Jesus happened and reversed the whole system. Continue reading →

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Imperfectly Perfect: Scout Sunday

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Call to Worship

One: We are a people of the great commandment
All: We are a people of love
One: Always calling one another
All: Always called by our God
One: The body of Christ with its many members
All: The body of Christ with its many miracles
One: We are a people of the Spirit
All: We are a people for today
One: Let us lift our voices as one
All: We lift them in worship and praise

Invocation

Divine Mystery, Loving God: We are a people gathered together in your name, in the name of your Son, our savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. We are a people gathered, threads on a loom, woven into this amazing church, this witness, this hope.

Loving Father, we are both the weaving and weavers. We pray that our weaving is pleasing to you even as we become, even as we are transformed together in your great work.

Weave from us, we ask, a garment of love, of joy, of praise. Weave from us a cloak of comfort, strong cloth for hard labor, beautiful cloth for miraculous days, warm cloth for cold nights, and even, we pray, a shroud for the journey.

Weave from us, we ask, weave from us all, a shimmering garment of many colors, a Joseph coat, a miracle, a masterwork. Bind and tie us one to another, each strengthened by those around us, each unique, amazing, loved.

As your Son selected his disciples, Peter and Mary and Salome and John, and turned them into a church, woven into the fabric of your kingdom, so you turn us into a church, living, growing, weaved and woven. And so we pray as your church, your kingdom, in the words he taught us saying: “Our Father… trespasses… for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”

Prayer of Confession

You call us a covenant people, a people gathered, but we are alone. Alone behind walls of our own construction. My rights, my property, my privacy. Mine. And yet you call, again and again, calling us out from that small life that hides behind those walls. You call and we emerge, only to retreat, convinced that this is what you want from us, for us: human justice, personal salvation. Mine.

And so we call to mind those times when we have forgotten your radical call to love, to love God, to love each other, remembering only to love ourselves. We call to mind these moments when we have hidden behind the walls of selfishness, of selfness, when we have missed opportunities to be more ourselves by forgetting ourselves.

We are a people called, forgiven and forgiving. Call us still, forgive us still, even as we reflect upon our failures, growing from them into our true selves, a great choir of worship and love. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon

Know this: God will never fail to reach for us, God will never fail to call to us, infinite patience and infinite love calling us into communion, into the kingdom, into a romance with one another, with life, with this blessed creation. Dare and God will dare with you. Fall and God will reach out. Be amazing, be love, be the church the changes the world, be with me in this radical love, and God will be with us. Amen.

Imperfectly Perfect: Our Lives Together

Most of us know the story. The Allies were within hours of reaching the camp when Prisoner Bonhoeffer was taken from his cell, escorted to the gallows, and executed. His crime was treason against the Third Reich, specifically, he had joined a plot to assassinate Hitler. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reformed pastor and committed pacifist, had become a modern martyr, a witness to Christ. Most of us know these facts. His letters from prison are widely read, as is his thin volume titled “Life Together.” We know this Bonhoeffer, the man of courage who returned from London to lead an underground seminary.

There is another Dietrich Bonhoeffer we often neglect, the committed theologian who struggled with this beautiful church situated in an ever-changing world. In his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio, Bonhoeffer wrote about sacred community, and he made one very bold claim. You do not stand alone. God did not execute a covenant with individuals. God executed a covenant with a people. You are not a person without others, we only become ourselves in the context of community, we are only in relationship when the God-called in us is connected to the God-called other. Now, this should make perfect sense to us, after all, Jesus promises to be with us if two or more are gathered in his name. He tells us to baptize one another and to break bread together, to feed and clothe and visit. Of course, Jesus also tells us to sometimes enter seclusion, to go off and pray in quiet. We are at once together and alone. Continue reading →

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Undelivered sermon

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This sermon was snowed out… maybe for the best!For the last two weeks, our Advent bible study group has been looking at the stories of miracle babies in the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament. We have asked ourselves again and again, what do these stories tell us about the Israelite faith? About the faith that Jesus lived? About the faith of Jesus’ followers? If we are going to call ourselves disciples of Jesus, and I can think of no better title, then we had better all ask these questions, ask them again and again… or maybe I’m wrong. If you have it worked out, if you understand what Jesus meant and means, if you understand God’s will, if you can pick up that pew Bible and read a consistent and coherent message, please raise your hand.

No takers? I’m not surprised. You might be here in a UCC congregation because you were born in this tradition, either the UCC or one of its antecedents. But many of us are here as refugees. We couldn’t make sense of our own traditions, could not find the same meaning in that book as those around us. We could find prosperity theology in some portions of the Hebrew scriptures, but we could not find it in the prophets, in the teachings of Jesus, not even in the teachings of Paul. We were told to have a personal relationship with Jesus, a relationship of righteousness grounded in faith that would guarantee immortality, we were told that Jesus came to cleanse us from the stain placed on us by a treacherous woman, a weak lesser human who had succumbed to supernatural temptation. We were told that personal morality and some abstract concept of faith was all that mattered, that Christians must fight abortion rights and homosexual rights.

Many were raised in a pick and choose Christianity that used Jesus as a weapon, that freely mixed passages to justify the dark desires of the human heart, the fear of strangers, self-righteousness, legalism, greed… though these were in fact exactly the topics about which Jesus preached, he spoke of the evils of self-righteousness, of legalism, of greed, not about sexual conduct. The record of the teachings of Jesus and the stories of the first Christians are often combined with selected passages of the Scripture of Jesus, that is the Hebrew Scripture, and twisted to make a monster of the gospel. Good news? I think not! And like so many others, I fled from that empty faith that contained nothing of Jesus. I was a refugee seeking a home… and I found one in the United Church of Christ. Continue reading →

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The Task of the Christian Minister

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The Harvard Divinity community gathers on Wednesdays at noon for worship. This week the UCC students hosted, and I was blessed with an invitation to preach. The reading was an amazingly scripted parallel of the Gerasene demoniac(s) story from the Synoptic gospels. (Thanks to Matt, Alex and Gusti!) The audience included HDS students and staff, as well as vistors considering enrollment. Here ismy sermon:

The Task of the Christian Minister

Jesus crosses the sea and casts out some X number of demons from some Y number of demoniacs. The gospels don’t agree, but when it comes to scriptural disagreement, this is minor league, nothing like the differing accounts in the Birth and Passion narratives. Okay, fair enough, Matthew’s version has an unflattering image of Jesus as tormenter of demons, kind of like the little boy burning ants on the sidewalk with his magnifying glass, not at all congruent with the happy clappy Jesus of the liberal tradition. And Matthew has that whole “before the time” line that is way too eschatological to be comfortable. Well, actually all three have this thing about Jesus not sending the demons back to the abyss, or at least letting them off easy with a piggy-back trip over a cliff, maybe an indication that demons running loose are part of God’s purpose. Try fitting that one into your theodicy. So maybe even these straightforward passages with their minor variations do have some theological implications. At least our congregants won’t hear them in the same lectionary year!

And we don’t have to preach on them. We can dodge them, try the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures on for size, and if that doesn’t work, throw the whole thing out and pick a reading that feels more comfortable. Besides, the budget isn’t looking good, Shinji and Heidi need marriage counseling, and Rebecca just lost her father, and don’t even get me started on the war that is raging over the flower arrangements. I don’t have time to deal with abstract theology… this is a church you know! Continue reading →

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My newsletter article for pledge campaign

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It is easy to focus on the right now… there is plenty of “right now” to go around! Right now we need to repair the walls. Right now we need to make room for our growing Sunday School. Right now… it’s endless. And it’s not much better at home. Right now we need to repair the car. Right now the orthodontist has sent her bill. Right now those shoes don’t fit anymore.

Jesus calls us out of the practical world of right now, into the impractical world of the Kingdom that is right now. I personally am far more like Martha than Mary! I’d have been tempted to say to Jesus “Do you want to eat? Then let me finish cooking, and send Mary in here to get the salad ready.” How do we balance the craziness of Christ’s call, to live radically, in confidence, from abundance, with the “right now” of our complicated practical in-need-of-repair lives?

Maybe we can start where I started with my children’s sermon a couple of Sundays ago. I spoke to the children about connections. With these, our youngest Sunday-Schoolers, I emphasized the literal and physical. The Sunday Times is a newspaper, yes! But it is also sunshine, and dirt, and the logger, and the logger’s breakfast, and the coffee the reporter drank, and the people who elected the leaders covered in the articles. In fact, the Sunday Times contains an infinite web of lives and resources.

I hinted, though didn’t discuss with the children, how the newspaper also pointed out moral connections. Burma tortures and kills religious leaders fighting for justice because an equally brutal regime in China serves as its shield. And we prop up that brutal Chinese regime with so many of our purchases!

What does all of this have to do with the pledge campaign? Surely you are not telling us to give to the church so we won’t buy stuff made in China! Come on Gary, get back to the walls and the Sunday School! Okay, fine… let’s go back to that newspaper.

Jesus was right. Everything is connected. The kingdom is now. The details are kind of fuzzy… we don’t always get it right, but our decisions around support of our church, around our pledge of financial resources and our time and talents, these decisions matter now. Are connected to other decisions in our lives. Are connected to walls that need repair, to space for our Sunday school, to the orthodontist and to the logger’s breakfast, to the “fair trade” coffee I purchased at the same time I purchased that copy of the Sunday Times. I can never follow every chain of connections… I can only know they are there, connecting me to others, so that my every decision can be the proverbial “butterfly flapping its wings on the far side of the world.”

Maybe I… maybe we, should try to be a little more crazy Jesus! Maybe we should trust that radical love and trusting abundance is life in the Kingdom, that the connections matter, that we can feed love and justice and generosity into that web of connections. How can we be anything but generous? Now, having had my Mary moment, I’ll go back to fixing the dinner…

Blessings,
Gary

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