Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Stuff from Recent Sermons

On Sunday, November 16, I preached on Matthew 25:14-30 often called the Parable of the Talents. This parable is at once familiar and troubling in its violence at the end.

I found an article by the scholar Barbara Reid helpful. It's titled "Matthew's Nonviolent Jesus and Violent Parables," and in it she lays out several different options for interpreting the violent treatment of many of the characters in Jesus' parables--usually at the hands of or command of the character interpreted as God or as Jesus. The article available for free on-line is a version of a more scholarly and somewhat less accessible article she published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly. The violence is not troubling, of course, if you believe in a literal final judgment that involves Jesus sending some people to hell and others to heaven, but if you have any doubts about such a theological reality--especially the way this judgment has been carried out by Christians throughout the ages in a very non--end-of-the-world sense--then the violence is bothersome.

Also, I've been turned on to the scholar Robert Farrar Capon's books on the parables. (Thanks to Andrew Kar!) In his book Parables of Judgment, Capon finds the key verse in this parable to be the foolish slave's understanding of his master: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ His interpretation of this and other parables states that the ones who find themselves kicked out of the Kingdom are those who remove themselves. Those who believe God is a great bookkeeper who keeps score and stands ready to punish those who don't measure up to impossible odds alienate themselves.

Also in this sermon I shared Frederick Buechner's interpretation of this parable. Buechner is one of my favorite authors and he tells about growing up in fear of his father who was an alcoholic in his trilogy of memoirs: Telling Secrets, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, and The Sacred Journey. I found a sermon on-line of Buechner's where he relates telling some of his experiences growing up with an alcoholic father when he was the speaker at a conference. One of those present remarked, "You are a good steward of your pain." What he took away from that comment was that instead of bottling up his pain and shutting himself off from the world, he had used it to help others and had shared what he had learned from it. This understanding of stewardship of our lives seemed to go hand in hand with Capon's understanding of the third slave shutting himself off from God.

Grace and Peace,


Can Thanksgiving Be More Like Babette’s Feast?

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I was reminded today of one of my favorite films, Babette’s Feast, the 1987 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. This wonderful movie tells the story of two sisters living in a small village on the Danish coast in the 19th century. Their father was a protestant minister who established the community with strict ascetic values. The sisters refused suitors in their youth and now are middle-aged and approaching spinsterhood. One day, Babette comes to them, a political refugee from Paris, and becomes their housekeeper and cook. For fourteen years, Babette serves them their austere diet of fish and porridge until she suddenly wins the lottery. Before returning to France, she decides to make the sisters and the other members of their aging dwindling community a lavish feast of French gourmet food the likes of which they have never seen. The entire last half of the film is spent lingering over the preparation and partaking of this meal in luxurious detail. Each ingredient used by Babette is included with love for those who took her in and each bite taken is savored by her guests.

This morning I heard New York Times film critic A. O. Scott’s thoughts on the film and couldn’t help but think of Thanksgiving. He says, “The brilliant thing about this movie and why it is so moving and so satisfying and so fulfilling is that it shows that this religious asceticism and the sensuality are really expressions of the same impulse, which is an impulse of love, generosity and spiritual fulfillment.” That sounds to me like what our day of Thanksgiving should be.

The film works on many levels, because it reveals the deep love the characters have for one another in the small everyday things they do for one another. In our culture that seems hell-bent on convincing us that to show someone you love them you must simply buy them a more expensive present, it has become radical to give the gift of your presence to those you care about—by presence I mean not only physical presence but attentiveness to them and what makes them special. In a culture that offers us an overload of sensation, ironically our senses become dulled to the miracles of love and relationship around us. With our senses dulled in this way, could we even enjoy a feast like Babette’s if it was put before us?

This Thanksgiving I pray that you will be open to God’s spiritual state of being that allows you to savor your Thanksgiving dinner—be it a traditional spread or something more humble—and to savor the loving relationships in your life.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Me in the News Press Giving Out Advice

I forgot to post a link here a few days ago, but I was in Saturday's St. Joseph News-Press in an article about how to pick a church.

Anyway, if you're reading this blog and you don't have a church in St. Joe, you're always welcome at First Christian.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Weaving Your Faith Story With That of Others

I was on the terrific web site of the wonderful public radio show Speaking of Faith and discovered a video interview with one of my professors at Emory University, Laurie Patton. In addition to having the most intelligent discussions about faith with top-notch writers and thinkers, the show has begun to have quite an offering of good stuff on their web site apart from the show. I had Patton for one class and she is delightful. She chairs Emory's department of East and South Asian Religions and her specialty is Hindu texts. I didn't know Patton well and I doubt she would remember me. I was actually under the impression that she was Buddhist, so I was surprised to find out in this clip that she was raised as Unitarian and then converted to Judaism. It's this religious mixture that fuels the discussion.

She speaks of her own experience as a Jew who studies Hinduism to describe how each of us needs the stories of others to help keep our own stories honest and truthful. This seems to me to be a key issue for our world and our times. Listening to other peoples stories--especially stories of faith--enables us to do a double-check about our own claims to truth.

It certainly has been the case that when I have shared my faith with people of other religions and let them share their own with me that my own faith has been strengthened, but it has also become more humble and less judgmental of others who don't share it. By learning from people whose faith is different from mine, I learn more about just how big God is and why I have chosen to believe what I do about God.

It's a good interview and worth the short amount of time it takes to watch.

Grace and Peace,


The Business of Bogus Holy Relics

Do you ever watch those documentaries on the Discovery and History channels about the "real" secrets of the Da Vinci Code or about the latest archaeological finds in the Holy Land? You know the ones I'm talking about--"scholars" looking wise and proffering eclectic knowledge about what "really" happened to the body of Jesus or so on. You may wonder how much of this stuff you should take seriously--and it turns out you should wonder.

A few years back, an ossuary was "discovered" with an inscription on it claiming it was the final resting place of "James the brother of Jesus son of Joseph." There was great excitement about the little bone box, the so-called "James ossuary" and it made headlines around the world. Even reputable scholars wrote books about it--now you can find them in the bargain bin at your local mega-bookstore. It turns out the ossuary was a fake and the antiquities dealer who went public with it is now on trial for fraud in Israel. This is only one example--of many--where supposed artifacts have turned out to be bogus. It turns out there is a big market for this stuff--and not just for gullible tourists. There's an appetite--particularly by American fundamentalists--for archaeological evidence of the stories in the Bible.

This raises the question of course of what difference would it really make if some relic were really authentic proof of Jesus' existence. Even that does not prove his resurrection or make the case for faith. Faith remains something that must be believed in the absence of evidence. Faith that requires proof is not faith. At best any such evidence can help make the case that faith is rational but it cannot prove it is true. It's ironic that some of the people holding the most conservative views regarding the literal interpretation of scripture--people who argue that much about life should be taken on faith--are the same ones who are the most interested in gathering evidence to validate their views.

There's a good interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation today with the author of a new book on the James ossuary and the burgeoning trade in "proving" faith claims through archaeology. Her name is Nina Burleigh and the book is Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land

Grace and Peace,


Is Faith Net Positive or Negative for the World?

In my Nov. 9 sermon on faith, I shared some about the person who commented on my Oct. 16 post. That post was about the critique of faith offered by Bill Maher's new film and the so-called New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc.). The critique of religion offered by the person commenting on my blog and one of the charges levelled by Maher and the rest is that faith is not only delusional but it is harmful for the world.

I came across a really nice (and brief) response to the latter charge on-line at Sightings, a selection of articles and columns offered by the University of Chicago Divinity School's Martin Marty Center. The column in question is by David Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, MI. He apparently also has a book responding to the New Atheists called A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil.

Here's a taste:

Maher and the new atheist authors' present anecdote upon anecdote about dangerous and apparently irrational religious behavior, while ignoring massive data on religion's associations with human happiness, health, and altruism. The Gallup Organization, for example, has just released worldwide data culled from surveys of more than a quarter-million people in 140 countries. Across regions and religions, highly religious people are most helpful. In Europe, in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia they are about fifty percent more likely than the less religious to report having donated money to charity in the last month, volunteered time to an organization, and helped a stranger.

Also, here's a good interview with him that includes an excerpt from his book at the cool site Explore Faith.

Grace and Peace,


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Stuff from Sunday's Sermon

This past Sunday, I preached on Jesus' parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or the Ten Virgins if you're reading from a translation besides the NRSV--virgin is the better translation) which can be found in Matthew 25:1-13. My interpretation of the parable came from a sermon by Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. I've heard Flrence preach several times at preaching conferences and always gained much from her ability to take a familiar passage of scripture and offer a new angle on it that breathed new life into it and me. In her sermon, "Filling Stations" she does the same for Matthew 25:1-13. As I shared in my sermon, I found her interpretation of the oil cared by the bridesmaids/virgins as something that could not be shared but rather something one could only posses for oneself to be enlightening. Also, her comparison of this parable with the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount to be insightful, because I had the same questions myself--for instance, why are the bridesmaids considered wise when they do not share? Aren't we Christians supposed to share with others? Forence's sermon is well worth reading.

Also, Florence's sermon is on the excellent website of Day 1 which offers some of the best sermons by mainline folks out there.

Although in my sermon Sunday, I was trying to move away from an interpretation of this parable that is interested solely in future events--heaven, the second coming, the end of the world, etc.--I did end it by saying that such a concern still matters to me. Certainly, every time I stand at the graveside of a church member--as I will do once again this week--I have to choose all over again to believe in heaven. It's a difficult thing to do when you are faced with the reality of death.

To illustrate my concern with the future release from our flawed world, I mentioned the conversations my 5 year-old and I have been having about U2 songs. I have succeeded in brainwashing him to like my favorite band! Now I need to work on kid number 2. One recent discussion was about the U2 song "Where the Streets have No Name." I'll let Bono's explanation of it from the band's web site give you a glimpse of why this song strikes a hopeful chord in me and so many other fans of the band:

‘Where the Streets Have No Name is more like the U2 of old than any of the other songs on the LP, because it’s a sketch - I was just trying to sketch a location, maybe a spiritual location, maybe a romantic location. I was trying to sketch a feeling. I often feel very claustrophobic in a city, a feeling of wanting to break out of that city and a feeling of wanting to go somewhere where the values of the city and the values of our society don’t hold you down.

‘An interesting story that someone told me once is that in Belfast, by what street someone lives on you can tell not only their religion but tell how much money they’re making - literally by which side of the road they live on, because the further up the hill the more expensive the houses become. You can almost tell what the people are earning by the name of the street they live on and what side of that street they live on. That said something to me, and so I started writing about a place where the streets have no name....’

Grace and Peace,


Incarnation (Dialogue Column 11.11.08)

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about incarnation over the last week. Incarnation is one of those theological words that tries to describe what essentially remains a mystery. In the history of the church, the term “incarnation” refers to the second person of the Trinity—Christ or the Son of God—taking a human body and becoming fully human and fully divine as the man Jesus. In a more general sense, the word “incarnation” means a person or thing that embodies a quality or concept. This second usage can have theological or non-theological meaning, for example, someone who is merciful might be called an incarnation of grace or someone who is heroic might be an incarnation of courage.

I’ve been thinking about incarnation over the past week due to the election of Barack Obama. (Don’t worry. I don’t think Obama is the Messiah or anything like that. Just relax.) Repeatedly in various forms of media, I heard African-Americans repeat the refrain that now; finally, they can tell their children that it really is true that an African-American can grow up to be anything he or she wants to be. The ideal of opportunity being available to all became, for African Americans, embodied or incarnate in Barack Obama. Whatever Barack Obama may or may not accomplish, whatever racism remains in our society, America changed last Tuesday. What was only a possibility became a reality. Something became real—or more real—that was not as real prior to Tuesday.

In my own way, I share the exultation of African-American parents. Unlike them, I do not know what it means to experience racism myself, since I am a Caucasian. Like them, however, I do know what it is to look into the beautiful brown faces of my bi-racial sons and worry about what racism they will experience. Although the bi-racial identity of Barack Obama was not played up as much as his African American identity during the campaign—largely because Obama self-identifies as African American—the fact that he is the product of two ethnicities and that he was raised by a white family had a big impact on me. When Obama won the Iowa Caucus, I turned to my wife and said in amazement, “Do you realize that it could actually happen that our sons might grow up never remembering a time when there had not been a bi-racial president?” I had never realized before adopting my sons at their births that I took for granted that the most powerful leader in our nation and maybe the world had features that resembled my own. Until Obama, my sons could not have experienced that barely conscious awareness that there was someone so powerful who looked like them.

I have pondered the importance of this kind of incarnation over the last year. Through my own hopes for my children, I think I can empathize with the women who wanted Hilary Clinton to win the Democratic nomination and even the presidency for the sake of their daughters, along with the women who wanted Sarah Palin to become Vice President for the same reason. For that matter, I can perhaps imagine the longings of parents of Latino/Hispanic American, Asian American and Native American parents who still wait for someone to embody or incarnate the possibilities for greatness they see in their children.

As awesome as the human imagination is, we humans seem to need our ideals and beliefs to take on flesh and become a lived reality. We need role models and examples to help us live out our own best selves. Similarly, we need people of faith and communities of faith to live out what they say they believe about grace, love and peace, so that the world can know such abstract concepts can be more than just words. For the same reasons, I believe that God knew we needed the incarnation of Jesus Christ so that we could see the God that exceeds our understanding walk around, talk, love, laugh and even die just like us. May you be the incarnation of God’s love to someone who needs it this week.

Grace and Peace,


Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama--a Rebuke to Fundamentalism of All Stripes

In all of the commentary I've read today on the historical and momentous election of Barack Obama to the presidency, there is one piece that really struck me as unique, because of its religious dimensions. Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis Schaeffer--literally one of the founding fathers of the modern evangelical movement known as the Religious Right, argues that Obama's election is a rebuke to religious fundamentalists and the so-called "New Atheists" like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and even Bill Maher, etc. Here's a taste:

Okay, so a lot of religious people are nuts, or worse, intolerant. That still doesn't address the baby swirling down the Maher/New Atheist anti-religion drain along with the right wing bathwater they're flushing.

President-elect Obama brings another perspective to faith . It goes something like this:

How do cultures define themselves if not through ritual? In the "big moments" of life; birth, marriage, sickness, death "who" -- in the inimitable words of Ghost Busters -- "you gonna call?" As President elect Obama has said, and I paraphrase: Strip the human race of our spiritual language and what do we tell each other about hope?

As President elect Obama has pointed out, a world of all math but no poetry is not fit for human habitation. If everything feels flat and dull, stripped of mystery and meaning who will bother to do the science? Why bother, if all we're doing is serving those selfish genes for another round of meaningless propagation?

So does this faith always make "sense?" No. Because our perspective is from the inside, something like paint contemplating the painting of which it's a part. We're all in the same boat, all stuck on the same "canvas."

So let's admit we all share the problem that was best articulated by Darwin in his dairy: "Can the mind of man, which has, as I fully believe, been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?"

As our new president recognizes, self-awareness and mortality are already such a mutually exclusive (and terrifying) contradiction that accepting a few more contradictions is par for the course! And President elect Obama has a generous enough spirit and a large enough intellect so that he can do with his spiritual life, what the Religious Right and the New Atheists have not done: understand that there is no shame in embracing paradox.

The younger Schaeffer has a book called CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back where he describes his own journey from extremely conservative evangelical to his current status as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. Sounds like interesting reading to me.

Grace and Peace,