Gifts to Each (172)

[Mark 7:31-37; James 2:1-8]

One of the most significant theologians of the twentieth century described God as “the One who loves in freedom.”[1]

That’s the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, writing sometime around 1939. At that point in his life Barth had been forced to give up his teaching position in Germany and leave the country because he was unwilling to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. This sort of political consciousness wasn’t new for Barth. Earlier in his life, when he was a pastor, he was well-known as an advocate for the rights of factory workers. The vitality of his theology was prompted by a crises of faith he experienced during the First World War when he saw many church leaders and intellectuals support the violence without question. They simply assumed that God backed the nationalistic agenda. Continue reading “Gifts to Each (172)”

Until the Day Breathes (171)

[Song of Solomon 2:8-17] Earlier this summer my family and I spent six days canoe camping. Over the past few years, we’ve been working our way up to spending a whole week in the backcountry. It always takes a few days to adjust to being so exposed to wind, sun and rain. Our six days this year were what I would call “honest.” By that I mean the weather was a mixture of rain and sun (with a few odd thunderstorms); the bugs were not unbearable, but they were present; our food was good, but we had to hang it in a tree at night; our sleeping bags and tent stayed dry, but we had to pack them carefully, carry them over the portage and paddle them across the bay. Continue reading “Until the Day Breathes (171)”

Why I Stopped “Following” Jesus

This isn’t quite how the conversation unfolded, but it’s pretty close: I was sitting across from a fellow pastor in his forties, a man who — unlike me —was hip enough to look like he belonged in the minimalist cafe where we met. We were talking about the pastoral challenges that come with yet more public failures from religious leaders. While I was deeply impressed by my conversation partner’s commitment to the local community, I noticed a peculiar pattern as the conversation unfolded. Continue reading “Why I Stopped “Following” Jesus”

A Shameful Week to Be a Member of the ‘Clergy’

I have never liked the idea of being a member of the ‘clergy’. Most weeks I’m not sure why that is. This week, though, it’s obvious. Just a few days ago a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in that state. The report wasn’t only about the abuse itself, but also about the way members of the clergy worked to protect priests who perpetrated these crimes, drew attention away from these matters and generally made prosecution difficult. As helpful as the report itself is, it appears that there will be few, if any, new criminal prosecutions or civil suits. This, despite the fact that there are more than 1000 victims. The crimes simply happened too long ago for perpetrators to still be legally vulnerable. Continue reading “A Shameful Week to Be a Member of the ‘Clergy’”

Worship and the Ways it Forms Us

One of the things about worship I remember from my high school years was the sense that it was mostly pointless. I don’t recall ever making a big deal about not wanting to participate, after all it was a good time to see friends, but I would have had a hard time making a case that worship was valuable. What “participating” in worship probably meant for me then was sitting in the back, standing when absolutely necessary and singing only at Christmas and Easter. The lowest points of worship for me were the responsive readings and the recitation of the creeds from the back of the worship book. At the time, these were new, cutting-edge resources for worship leaders in those church circles. To me they were, and here I quote my younger self, “mindless incantations.” If I valued worship of any type as a high school student, I valued what felt like genuine self-expression. It had to authentic, from the heart, to have any value at all.    Continue reading “Worship and the Ways it Forms Us”

Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)

In the biblical world hyssop was used for both medical and ceremonial purposes. It’s an aromatic plant, a bit like sage or mint. It was prescribed for sore throats and upset stomachs. The ancient Hebrews used it in purification rituals. That’s what the poet in Psalm 51 has in mind when he asks to be “purged with hyssop.” He has confessed; he’s hoping to be cleansed and forgiven.

The most famous advocate in our own time for the power of confession and forgiveness must be Desmond Tutu. In 1986 Tutu was named the Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa. The job came with an official residence in an area known as Bishopscourt. At the time black folks like Tutu needed special passes just to enter that part of the city. Archbishop Tutu declined to apply for such a pass. He decided he would live in the archbishop’s traditional residence with or without the approval of a racist government. Tutu did not lack for courage. When Nelson Mandela was released from prison he spent his first night as a free man in that residence, hosted by the archbishop. Continue reading “Cleanse Me with Hyssop (170)”

A Terror and a Blessing (169)

Here in II Samuel 6 we have another difficult biblical passage. It is allegedly a simple story of David moving the ark of God to a more prominent location. Earlier in the week, when I sent out the electronic version of our church’s order of service, I mentioned that I was having trouble with this passage. One person wrote back and suggested that I just follow David’s example . . . and dance.

Given the difficulty of this passage, I couldn’t help but take the suggestion seriously. Liturgical dance was a thing when I went to seminary. I didn’t take the class, but I’ve seen it done. However, in giving the idea some thought, it occurred to me (as it may have just occurred to you) that what got David in trouble was the fact that he danced in nothing but a linen ephod. Our denominational code of ethics doesn’t actually deal with this specific situation, but still . . . instead of dancing with this story, I think we are better off wrestling with it. Continue reading “A Terror and a Blessing (169)”

Racism, the Church and the Path of Solidarity

When he was a high school student Drew Hart had begun to sense a call to ministry. For that reason, he decided to attend a private Christian college where we could major in biblical studies. Most students at the college where white. Hart was black. He had hoped that studying in a Christian context would be a positive experience. What he found, however, was that this Christian institution, like so many others, was a racialized space. The TV shows and music the majority students referenced were new to him. He sensed the discomfort of white students at his presence. He noticed their suspicion. The signs were subtle, but they were evident. White students would move to the edge of the sidewalk when he approached. Some of them referred to all black males as “thugs.” It was commonly suggested that most of the black men on campus where only there because they helped the basketball team. Continue reading “Racism, the Church and the Path of Solidarity”

He Saw a Great Commotion (168)

The fourth chapter of Mark ends with the great story of Jesus calming the storm. What we don’t always notice is that when they were caught up in the storm, Jesus and his disciples were heading toward a part of ancient Palestine known as the Decapolis. It was the “other” side. The Decapolis was a group of cities culturally distinct from the area Jesus and most of his disciples called home. This area was so deeply influenced by Greek culture that many devout Jews would have considered it morally suspected, or possibly even depraved. For them it was the kind of place, that if you went at all, left you feeling contaminated.

As soon as they got out of the boat on this side of the lake a naked man with broken shackles and chains rushed at them. This would have confirmed the darkest of the disciples’ suspicions. Yet Jesus met the man, spoke to him, calmed him . . . and healed him. The locals were intimidated. They asked the group to leave. Our reading (Mark 5:21-43) comes right after this. When Mark says that Jesus and his friends “crossed again” it meant they were coming back to their side of the Galilee.      Continue reading “He Saw a Great Commotion (168)”

David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)

What do we do with some of these Bible stories? If you happen to be at a place in life where you are looking for kid’s toys, you have probably seen about a hundred different versions of Noah’s ark. All the sets are brightly colored. They have fun little boats and all sorts of wonky animals. Yet if you’ve ever actually sat down and played with one of these with a child, you’ve probably found yourself in an awkward situation. Maybe you were pushing the boat across the carpet in the living room and narrating the story in a funny voice . . . and then you suddenly realized what an awful story it is. The narrative involves all of humanity, except for one family, being drowned! Almost all the animals drown. You close the cute little door on the ark with all the animals on board, Noah’s family is peaking out a portal—and the rest of humanity is screaming in terror. Most of us skip that last part. Yet for some reason the story of Noah’s ark persists in being one of the first that we tell to children: “Welcome little one to the beloved community, let me tell you about the time God killed everyone.” And we wonder why some kids hate taking baths. Continue reading “David, Son of Jesse, Child Soldier (167)”