Aug. 13: “The Sign of Silence”

This was a long haul; I saw a thread connecting these two scriptures that spoke well to where we are as churches today.  But it proved to be a tangled thread!  Thanks for the expressions of appreciation from the Center Church folks who are joining us this month.  Some asked about reading it online, and I hope they can find the blog.  (And comment at the bottom!)

Scriptures: Matthew 16:1-2a, 4;  1st Kings 19:9-18

A Warning: This is going to get complicated, and a little long. I’m going to weave between these two texts, both of which are weird and difficult. Stay with me. It might help if I give you the simple message right up front: our churches are in trouble; we may be dying, we may continue to live. What I hear these texts saying is that we need to take this time of worship before God very seriously; it is essential to who we are. But the God we encounter here might be mysterious and puzzling to us. Let’s open ourselves to that. Worship can lead, sometimes, to an encounter with the God who is brings more questions than answers, more trouble than comfort. That’s who God is, and we need to deal with it. But I think the place to find our comfort and assurance, our rock of purpose and meaning, if not always in worship, is in our work with and for others to establish God’s reign of justice and love.

We’re reading the Old Testament this August. It’s vital to understand that the Old Testament was compiled in such a way that it contains a big, messy disagreement about whether we are to blame for our sorry lot. Is the suffering that we experience a punishment from God, or are we simply victims of senseless suffering?

We’ve known nothing as severe as the sufferings of Israel. With the exile to Babylon in 587 BC, they lost the temple, the kingship, the land, many lives—everything that was to them a sign of divine blessing. Much of the Old Testament, but not all of it, looks back at this loss and declares, it was God’s punishment because we worshipped the Canaanite gods and failed to practice justice. It’s both troubling and admirable that they could so completely blame themselves.

We’ve never had to reckon with such devastation. If anything, we are like the Israelites of Elijah’s time, before the dreadful exile occurred. Then, the Israelites still enjoyed much wealth and power, although the glory days were in the past, and an ominous cloud already hung over the future. And so it is that we mainline Christians (and the UCC is classic mainline), still remembering our bygone glory days, wonder whether we are heading into exile, whether our temples will be torn down, our leadership lost—and if this catastrophe is indeed coming upon us, we wonder why.  Like our Old Testament, I want us to wrestle with that question today, recognizing that there might be more than one answer.

Let’s begin, though, with Jesus’ strange words. The Pharisees and Sadducees together come and ask Jesus for a sign. Now they already asked him once before for a sign, in chapter 12. So despite Jesus’ performing exorcisms, healings, and feeding 4000 with seven loaves and fish, which he just did, the Pharisees and Sadducees still don’t believe. They want “A sign from heaven.” They won’t be satisfied with the amazing humanitarian, earthly signs of Jesus’ compassionate power; they want fire, and wind, and earthquakes, and great supernatural displays of power that would point right to God. Jesus answers tersely, calling them “an evil and adulterous generation” and saying they will receive no sign but the sign of Jonah, whatever that is, and then he leaves them with silence, having nothing more to do with them for the rest of the Gospel. But they plot to kill him.

It’s a troubling little text that is distinctive to Matthew’s gospel. You see, Matthew has arranged his gospel so that pretty much all the Jews get blamed for Jesus’ death, because in Matthew’s place and day—probably 45 years or so after Jesus’ death—things were getting really nasty between traditional Jews and the upstart Christian movement. So Matthew reads his contemporary breakdown of relations back into the original story of Jesus. That’s why Matthew presents two groups who in Jesus’ day were enemies, the Pharisees and Sadducees, as acting together to challenge Jesus. Historically, that seems unlikely. This hostility that Matthew has toward ‘all those other Jews’ is understandable, but sadly it played into a long history of Christian anti-Judaism; and it took the systematic murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, and let’s not forget, the complicity of many others, for the church finally to reckon with this ugly history. We can never read these anti-Jewish texts the same way again.

Instead, I think today we should read this text in a much more uncomfortable way, by asking, are we now the Pharisees and Sadducees? They represent the empowered, established religion of Jesus’ time. The Sadducees were very old-school, and they put their trust in the old traditions and in the glory of the Jerusalem Temple which they controlled. The Pharisees, for their part, were very bookish and well-educated, claiming ownership of Scriptures, priding themselves in sophisticated argument and new ideas. But both groups had a hard time letting go of the privileges they enjoyed to embrace this new vision of Jesus. Neither party was ready to accept the humanitarian faith Jesus revealed to them, and soon they will find themselves in a terrible crisis, and it will become clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be contained in just Israel, but must break down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. The Pharisees and Sadducees couldn’t imagine God embracing these unfamiliar, unclean people.

You see where I am going with this? Are we the old guard, the perverse generation? I don’t think we are, simply so, but it might be a good idea to try it on and see if it fits even a little. In our own ways, we have a hard time accepting this Jesus, except in the faded form of a sentimental tradition, or as just an emblem of our respectable status—everybody who is anybody is a Christian. But can we accept Jesus as the one who leads us into and through death and on to new life? Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we have a hard time hearing his words as something new, radical, and life-changing.

And if the shoe does fit, if we are at least a little bit like the Pharisees and Sadducees, what is this sign of Jonah? Now Jonah preached repentance like Jesus; but Jonah was barely faithful, and yet he was successful. Jesus was totally faithful but unsuccessful. On the other hand, Jonah was swallowed by the whale for three days, and for Christians this is a symbolic precedent for Jesus’ death and resurrection on the third day. But in this passage of Matthew, the sign of Jonah is left enigmatic. That’s the point, in fact; for those who cannot hear Jesus, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, an enigma is all that is left to them. Has Jesus become an enigma to us? We want to say, “Surely not I, Lord?”//

Well, if we don’t identify perfectly with the bold and fearless original followers of Jesus, but neither again with the enemies of Jesus, perhaps Elijah is a closer fit for us. He is one of the greatest of the prophets, to be sure; and that seems a bit beyond us. But in this passage he reveals himself to be unsure; he’s even feeling sorry for himself—I can identify with that!—and he is dissatisfied with the predicament God has given him. And in this passage he does not receive a clear answer from God—something that can elude us also. But in his faithful vulnerability before God, he does encounter God in a new way that might prove instructive for us.

Elijah has just come off of a great victory. The king and the people had all abandoned their faith in the one God, for they had become entranced by Canaanite gods, above all Baal. Baal promised them everything they wanted—fertility and good crops—and they lost interest in being a unique people who serve God. So, in the midst of a long drought, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel and won. Each party prepared a sacrifice and called upon their god to bring fire down on it. No fire comes from Baal. But God utterly consumes Elijah’s sacrifice with—note—fire. The people repent, and then God brought the rains.

But then Queen Jezebel, who favored the Baal prophets, sent Elijah an icy message, vowing to kill him. So he flees into the wilderness, and tells God that he might as well just die on the spot. God then provides him with food, and sends him on a journey to Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, where Moses and the Israelites first met and made a covenant with God. And that brings us to our passage.

I submit to you that, even if we are a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we also bear at least a faint resemblance to Elijah. With Elijah, we also look back on our faithful work. Once our churches were powerful, and confident. We offered a way to be Christian that was reasonable, open to science and learning, never dogmatic, but friendly to other ways of being Christian as well as other faiths; shouldn’t that have carried the day? And we could boast of impressive deeds done on behalf of our communities and the world, as well as proud institutions of higher learning. But now we wonder why we seem to be losing ground. The great mainline heyday in the 50s and 60s seems so far gone. Now, like Elijah, our lives are on the line.

And our opponents have the upper hand. They include the fundamentalist Christians who seem to make an idol out of having absolute truth and can’t seem to distinguish Christian faith from a very conservative, patriarchal politics and narrow, Victorian morality. And yet they seem to get all the attention of our media kings and queens; how many times do you hear about evangelicals in the news as compared with the UCC and other mainline churches? These Christians, whom we barely know and can hardly understand, seem to have much in common with other religious zealots and fundamentalists around the world; those who can’t abide by democracy and pluralism, and sometimes even resort to unspeakable violence. It seems the most powerful forms of religion today are those most against who we are.

So it is that our other opponent, secularism, hits closer to home. Secularism just means accepting the limits of religious authority, and accepting that our public realm is religiously neutral. In many ways we have worked hard to embrace and adapt to this secularism, but it turned against us. We did so much to show that Christian faith understands its own limits and can be very this-worldly and humanitarian; but now it seems so many people see no reason to step out of the secular and go to church (unless they attend the previously mentioned fanatical churches). Not only our neighbors but even our own children seem skeptical that the church has anything to offer them that isn’t already provided by aspirations toward career and family, by the endless, flashy output of our media and internet, by all of the personal challenge and fulfillment offered through athletics, or being in touch with nature, or being spiritual-but-not-religious. Who needs the church? My life is full.

In all of this, we feel quite a bit like Elijah. We feel like we are fighting a losing battle to preserve the faith. Baal is too strong for us.

But if Elijah is feeling a little too sorry for himself, surely we have even less of an excuse. Remember, we are also a little like the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are at least a little to blame for our loss of power and faithfulness. We can debate exactly why the mainline church has received its comeuppance. Did we become too secular, too American, too blended into middle-class American life? Did we become too wealthy, too white, and too complacent? Did we water down the Holy One of Israel into a milquetoast source of middle class self-affirmation and our much-sought self-esteem? Did we stop taking sin seriously? All of these might be true. But no doubt, in general we can say that we liked being the establishment church, too much. We still prefer to cling on to the trappings of being the center of town life, rather than submitting ourselves afresh to the commands of our Holy God. Maybe the problem boils down to this: we establishment churches worship an anti-establishment God, a God who more often than not takes the side of the wild prophets and the hungry people of the land rather than the self-satisfied kings and respectable Pharisees and Sadducees.

In a way, our problem has turned the corner for us. We have already lost most of our establishment power and prestige. What remains are our gorgeous and grand buildings, and we are left wondering if we can ever again fill them with real spiritual power—perhaps like they used to be, or perhaps like they never have been filled—perhaps more faithfully, more honestly, freed from our Pharisaical past that was always prone to hypocrisy. Perhaps only in the future can we become true churches of faithfulness to God, rather than to small town, middle-class, white Americana. /

Elijah’s journey likewise takes him back to Mt. Horeb, to the original roots of the Jewish faith, before the corruption set in, but did you notice that what he finds when he gets there is also quite new and unprecedented? He’s in a cave at Horeb, and “the word of the Lord” comes to him, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Although God sent him there, the question implies that Elijah ought to be somewhere else, namely, carrying out his mission as a prophet. Elijah unloads his sorry state on God. The story continues: “He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’” Who said? It may seem like this was God speaking, but the voice doesn’t say, ‘I am about to pass by,’ but “The Lord is about to pass by.” So was it an angel? Or Elijah’s own thoughts? Hmm.

Then the traditional mighty signs of God’s presence pass by, the wind and earthquake and fire like the original Israelites saw at Sinai, all signs from heaven like the Pharisees and Sadducees were looking for from Jesus. But the Lord was not in these. And then sheer silence. Only then does Elijah cover his face and go out to meet God in this silent and still presence. And in what follows, the passage doesn’t say, “Then God said…” It says, “A voice came to him and said,”—oddly, the same question again: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And Elijah repeats his lament to the letter. /

I wish I could make all of this perfectly clear. But to me it looks like in this silence, God’s voice and Elijah’s own voice merge into one, just so, when Elijah honestly and freely pours out his heart to God, but also while questioning why he is doing so. We lament before God our sorry and uncertain state as God’s servant, the church; but we don’t really expect a grand answer. We receive the sheer silence, and hear in that the question to ourselves, what are we doing here? And we live with that question. We might not experience the God we traditionally expected, who has all the answers and does mighty acts, the god the fundamentalists cling to and the secularists long ago dismissed as a fairytale. But in the honesty of our lament and self-questioning, there is a profound new experience of the mystery of God in this old place.

And then, and only then, after this uncomfortable silence, Elijah gets a perfectly clear message. “Then the Lord said to him,” and God basically tells him to get back to work. Go anoint these kings and the prophet Elisha, who will succeed you. Do your work and pass it on. And God reminds Elijah that he’s not really left alone and feeling sorry for himself. God has a remnant, 7000 in Israel, who are faithful, though Elijah doesn’t know who they are. Now Elijah isn’t to seek them out or prophesy to them, he’s to do his own work; but he should realize that there’s a remnant out there. Whatever becomes of Elijah’s work, God’s got plenty of accomplices.

So Elijah goes. Curiously enough, he doesn’t accomplish all those tasks that God told him. The work we are called to do is not set in stone, even though it comes from God. But Elijah was reminded that it’s in doing the work of God, out there, not here in the temple, our Mt. Horeb, that we are closest with God and best experience God. Maybe all we do here is to be quietly honest with ourselves, laying our burdens before God, not sure why or what to expect. It may not be for us to experience the flashy spiritual fireworks of wind, earthquakes, and fire. It doesn’t mean God is not in the silence. But let us also remember that God has other servants; there are people foreign to us, like the Gentiles were to the Jews, whom God will call and be present to in different ways, maybe with all the spirit and fire of our Pentecostal sisters and brothers, whether in Africa or South America or Holyoke. Let us not be so small to think the Gospel is not now theirs, perhaps more than it is still ours.

But let us continue to return to our own roots, seeking God in this our Mt. Horeb, meeting God where our honest questions and self-doubt intersect with mystery and silence, and readying ourselves to encounter God in the ordinary miracles of humanitarian service that we do together in a secular world.

Maybe this is the sign of Jonah for us repentant old Pharisees and Sadducees. Jonah was not that faithful; he was not confident in what God told him to do, and he did it begrudgingly. In fact, God had to bring Jonah into the very jaws of death to get him to do his job. But Jonah did it, and it worked, and God was glorified in a way no one expected was possible.

Canceling the Series on Faith and Politics, or, Watch Out What You Ask For

In First Samuel, the people pester God for a King so they can be like all the other nations.  God bitterly accedes to their request, warning them through Samuel that they will be sorry (1 Samuel 8).  I guess we’ve come a long way.  I offered to present a sermon series on faith and politics, and found it was roundly rejected….

What became clear to me is that. on the whole, we are not yet ready to hear anything regarding the meaning of faith for our political life.  The very conjunction of the words “faith” and “politics” acts as (to use a buzzword) a dog whistle, prompting a strong reaction before people can even hear what I’ve said.

I made the case in a June 16 post that my approach to faith and politics would be very different from how most preachers do this.  Most preachers try to sneak in political content and see how far they can get away with it.  I suspect many preachers want to feel like they are making what political difference they can, but as I suggested in that post, the result is often a self-righteous and theologically irresponsible statement on a big, “hot-button” national issue that will mean nothing anyway.  (Will you change the way one or two congregants vote in an election?  And so what?)  Others I think want to reorient the political values of the congregation on a larger and more meaningful scale, but this is done with manipulative rhetoric, typically forcing a political issue into the Bible or cherrypicking texts.  How is this loving and respecting your congregation?  Isn’t this just doing what our whole country is descending into: seeing each other as political obstacles to be manipulated by any means necessary?

Anyway, I already made the case that I will have no part in this kind of thing.  But I also argued that just politely avoiding all political content is no solution.  The Gospel is about a way of being a people, thus all that stuff about the “Kingdom of God.”   We’ve already gone way too far into making the gospel a purely private, personal matter–about how I find personal peace and forgiveness and perhaps life after death.  Jesus shows little interest in such a small scope of concern.

That aside, we have already been affected and changed by the growing polarization of our culture.  We are more and more dividing into two tribes, Red and Blue, and that division goes right through our denominations and our own congregation.  Must I say the obvious?  Trustees are Red.  Missions and CE are Blue.  (Obviously there are exceptions, but the tendency is striking.) We have self-segregated, like the whole country is self-segregating.  It would be naive to think that just staying the course is possible.  If we don’t address this openly and transparently, then Red and Blue will only more and more become our new Jew and Greek.

As I said, I discerned that we are not yet ready to address this matter transparently.  I received a kind note of concern to my previous post.  But I also received a very different note.  This one made its way to my inbox by accident.  It was from a congregant who was writing someone else that the pastor is going to preach on faith and politics, and complaining that “looks like we are not going to church in the fall.”  The message urged the friend to “READ his blog.”  There was also a disparaging comment about my pastoral care, which–though I’ve never been proud of how much pastoral care I provide with my 25 hours a week–was misinformed.

First of all, I write this blog as a way to explore ideas with my congregation, with the advantage that here it is easy to get feedback and continue conversation.  (I wish the “comment” feature was a little easier to use, but it is a free blog site.)  I expect more from the congregation to just scanning the blog to find something incriminating about me.  That’s how the Pharisees listened to Jesus (not to push the parallel too far).  Instead, I expect that you either won’t have time to read everything I say, and it’s not like it’s all drops of golden sunshine; or that you will read in good faith, thoughtfully considering what I say and telling me very directly when you read something that you find disagreeable.  You shouldn’t be trying to “catch” me.  That’s not what a community founded on love and mutual respect does.  I recognize the fact that pastoral authority can be frustratingly undemocratic; but you all have ways to express your disagreement directly and constructively, and many of you have seen how open and encouraging I am to this.

Second, the email I received exactly confirmed my point, that without addressing this issue head-on, we will simply continue to split more into Red and Blue.  The author was using (perceived) political issues to build a coalition along political lines against me.  But that’s exactly what I said was the problem that I was working on avoiding!  We should not be confiding with the people we already agree with politically about how those other people are so wrong and dangerous.  But that’s what was going on in that email, and I’ve heard people on the left in our congregation do the same thing.  We are already poisoned, all of us.

But whenever we continue in our very bad habit of talking about each other in the third person, creating coalitions against one another, I will counter the only way I know how: by being even more direct.  I went over to the household that produced that email; the author wasn’t in, but the spouse was, and I had a very good conversation–listening and talking–and explained how what I am trying to do is essential to what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, as well as to survive and thrive as a congregation.

I received no other strong reactions against my proposed sermon series.  But I still am postponing it.  (Note: not forever!)  I received from church leaders cautionary words, which is fine.  But no one said to me: “Yes, pastor, I hear what you are saying and see why this is so important.  We need this.”

But I think we do.  I can’t force it on you; that would be counterproductive and an abuse of authority.  So I am going to push us onward in another way.  Instead of the proposed series on faith and politics, this fall I’ll have a series on spiritual growth.  I’m creating a spiritual self-evaluation that will call on each one of us to discern where we have yet to grow in our faithfulness to God and to each other as a church.  I think we need to remember and put into practice the fact that our life in God is an endless path of growth and sanctification, even though we are already reconciled and united with God in Christ.  But the ramifications of that necessarily take up a whole lifetime.

So we are not by any means off the hook, only all the more on it, and I’m going to start reeling you upward.  Because we will not get anywhere in our need to become a people committed to a shared way of life before God, just by listening to what I have to say.  Our only way forward is to rise up together toward Christ.  Our whole life needs to be one of repenting and being converted by discerning Christ in each other.  The goal will be something higher than any of us possess right now, but we can only get there with and through each other.

And the authority my words carry is nothing I own.  It is never about just listening to my say-so.  Even so, my life is a constant testing of myself before God, and constant striving with God for the blessing of truth, and I constantly come out limping.  Even when I seem to have won a blessing, I am never sure whether God didn’t just pretend to let me win this one.  (See my sermon on Jacob.)  You also must wrestle with what I say, and put yourself to the test before God.  And finally our strivings must not be done alone, but together.  We are Congregational, which means no one else is going to help us figure out the truth of God.  It’s all up to us.  We should be terrified at this.  But one thing is clear in the Bible: Where the terror is, there also is the glory of God.



More on Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom as a Worship Structure

I surprised most of those gathered yesterday with a new structure for our worship service.  We began briefly attending to the Body, then shifted the focus to our Self.  (I could call it “soul,” but that could make us think more of the eternal destiny of our soul, which is not where I wanted to go.  Rather, I wanted this part of the service to be where we place our most personal and individual concerns before God. )

From the Gloria, through Scriptures, Anthem, and Sermon, the focus was on Spirit.  This term is the vaguest or most easily misunderstood.  “Spirit” as I use it is not some ghost-like ethereal substance in us.  If we look just to each individual, the Spirit most strongly connects to our minds.  But Spirit is inherently social.  Think “school spirit” or “team spirit.”  Spirit is the meaning and purpose that a group of people embody as a whole, and if the meaning and purpose is a good one and is well understood, that group will be powerfully motivated.  Donald Trump was able to generate a certain spirit among his supporters, which is why they seem impervious to unseemly news about him.  (And a reminder: just because you have “spirit” does not mean you are doing something right.  Hitler generated one of the most powerful juggernauts of spirit in the 20th century, which led theologians to see the “demonic” side of spirit.  And it’s why the Bible calls for a careful “discernment of spirits.”)  So in the Spirit section we try to achieve a unity of purpose and mind by attending to Scripture and reflecting on it in our day.  It is no accident that my sermon yesterday made the point that this act of Spirit involves a dangerous laying hold of God, as we should do it with fear and trembling.

Having sought to raise ourselves up into the Spirit, the fourth part of worship enacted and embodied the Kingdom of God within our little community.  I was so glad the we could start this new structure on a Communion Sunday, which is the perfect expression of becoming a distinct form of divine community.  On subsequent weeks, the main expression will be a Prayer of Intercession, which is also fitting: we enact God’s Kingdom by praying for each other and the world.  And then we go forth and leave church to continuing enacting that Kingdom in a hundred little ways.

Here, in brief, is why I felt the need to try this experimental structure–which is only for the month of August and involves very few changes to our order of worship.  (I moved the Passing of the Peace, and added a body-centered meditation.)

  1. Our current practice of worship completely ignores the body, but our bodies are an integral part of who we are and of how we connect with God and each other.
  2. Protestant worship, as my recent research has shown me, took over a very penitential structure of worship.  (See John Witte, Protestant Worship).  In the Medieval church, communion was rarely received, in part because you had to say a full confession before you could receive it.  The assumption was that you had to be absolved of sin before you could receive communion.  Communion, in other words, was not the primary expression of being a community; it was a bonus reserved for the purified.  Protestants continued this understanding of communion by beginning worship with a Prayer of Confession and Assurance of Pardon.  That can be fine–and I like doing this during Lent–but it assumes that the main point of worship is always dealing with personal sin.  There’s much more to it than that: we grow in our commitment to goodness and holiness, we strengthen our bonds of community by uniting together with Christ, we lose ourselves in mystical union with God, we confess before God our powerlessness and suffering at the hands of the world, and so on.  We need to explore many more possibilities than guilt and forgiveness.  (And so I have generalized the Prayer of Confession to mean confessing many things: our sin, but also our faith, our needs, our sorrow and suffering, our unity with each other, and so on.)
  3. The worship service at the Church of Christ, not unusual among Congregational Churches, has two prayers, each with a moment of silence built in.  I puzzled at the redundancy of this.  So in the Body/Self/Spirit/Kingdom structure, the first prayer (“Confession”) is about our individual needs and prayers.  The second (“Intercession”) is us praying a community for each other and for the world.

There you have it.  This is a great place to comment on whether the four-fold structure made any difference for you in worship, and whether you like it or not.  Thanks!

Aug. 6: “…Yet My Life is Preserved”

The sermon enjoyed a better reception than I expected.  Could it be I kept it to 12 minutes?  

Romans 9:1-5 ; Genesis 32:22-32

We began by recognizing and respecting our bodies as a blessing and an integral gift to seeking God. And then we recognized our individual self, our personal concerns, and set them before God in prayer. This is right and good. God warmly cares about each one of us, wishing that each of us thrive and enjoy our created life.

I wouldn’t want to stop there, however. We’re not really God’s church and kingdom if we don’t go beyond our personal concerns. I was reminded of this by a former student of mine who, I was delighted to learn, is now going on to pastoral ministry. And it is always humbling to learn something from a former student. In a seminary article she made this observation about churches like ours, that are mostly white and middle-class: “[These churches] that I have encountered view the role of the pastor to be one of comfort and taking care of members. With this view of the pastoral role, faith becomes a mostly personal endeavor and a personal affair. Not only is the prophetic voice lost, but the pastor’s individual voice can also be lost.” Amen, Judith. She wants our churches to go beyond personal faith concerns to address the issues that shape our common world, especially racism. I humbly agree with my former student. I do hope that she will discover pastoral care to be a beautiful part of ministry, one that ultimately deals with the same humanity as does the church’s witness on social issues. About the latter I have more to say, but I am saving that for my blog.

But according to our bulletin (which is a sneaky way of saying “according to me,” because I pretty much wrote the bulletin), we have moved on from the Self segment and are now in the Spirit segment of our service. In this segment we rise above our personal concerns and, primarily through the mysterious reality we call God’s Word and reflection on it, we seek to attain a unity of mind. Paul tells the Corinthians, “You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” And later he adds, “We have the mind of Christ.” If we can have a unity of mind and purpose based on a transcendent union with Christ, then when we actually enact being a community, being God’s people and kingdom, which is what we do in the last segment of worship, our work together will be vitalizing, conflict-free, and really potent.

Now unity of mind doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything or think perfectly alike. Being the Body of Christ means learning to love and honor our natural diversity. I certainly don’t mean we all should think like ME. I get really tired of my own mind. But part of our life together involves striving to be mindful together about following God in our world today. It’s typically my job to lead this, but we can’t really attain Spirit, unity of mind, unless you keep me true, like my former student Judith just kept me true. So starting today, I’m going to try to not run all over the place during fellowship hour, but plant myself at one table to listen to any thoughts you have on the sermon or service, including this kooky experiment in four-parts. Come sit down with me and share freely. My list of virtues is short, but I do take criticism very well.

Also this August, I want to focus on Old Testament texts. I’ll say more on that as the month goes, and more on Paul’s continuing attempt in Romans to come to terms with the Judaism he was raised on. I know we all love to read the New Testament. It’s an excellent witness to our faith when it was fresh and young and vital. But guess what: it isn’t that anymore. We are much more like the ancient Israelites of the second temple period, or maybe even those living in exile and captivity, than like the early Christians of Acts or Paul’s churches. Like the writers and compilers of the Old Testament, we live our faith in the wake of a long and tired struggle with corruption and flagging energy, and we often have a hard time understanding who God is in the midst of all this. While usually the New Testament speaks as if everything has been made so clear and final through the light of Christ’s resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Old Testament often compels us to be honest about our own questions and puzzlement about God.

Take today’s reading about Jacob’s all-night struggle with whoever that was. Having heard it, even though it may be a familiar story, are any of you left with the illusion that the meaning and moral of this story is simple and clear? That’s what a lot of people would like to expect from the Bible, and from the preacher: a simple, clear message to help us keep on keepin’ on. The only clear message I imagine any of us got so far is, “Don’t eat that thigh muscle that is on top of the hip socket.” If you are satisfied with that carving tip, you may stop listening to the rest of the sermon.

The story is utterly perplexing to us, especially in English and with no context. I could unleash a mountain of scholarship on you and explain the three or more puns involved in the story. If you love puns, then Genesis is your book. This story alone draws on a pun between Jabbok and the word “to wrestle” and well as “Jacob;” a second pun between the name “Israel,” introduced here, and the word from “striving;” and a third pun between Peniel (or was it Penuel?) and the phrase, “face of God.” Of course, those puns only work in Hebrew, and they just aren’t as fun when you translate them.

There’s also so much to be said about the context and setting of this story. Jacob is re-entering the land promised him by God. On the way out to start his family, he had his famous dream vision of the ladder to God (nicely alluded to in our Anthem). On the way back, he is under a dire threat that everything he has gained—his wives and children, his wealth and flocks, his father’s blessing which he stole from his brother (and who knew such a thing could be stolen?)—all this and his very life might perish at the hands of his angry, red and furry brother Esau (who in this story symbolizes the nation Esau or Edom, Israel’s neighbors who are kin but often hostile.) This story brings us to another dramatic climax in the Genesis story, like the one I left off with in June, when God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. As in that story, today it looks again like the whole promise and plan of God might not come to pass. The promise of prosperity and descendants, given originally to Abraham but also as a promise to “all the nations,” including us, looks like it might go belly up after all, for Jacob and everything he has might be destroyed. This time the culprit will not be a God who bafflingly decides that all of the sudden he wants a sacrifice, but Jacob’s own trickery coming back to haunt him. Esau is understandably furious.

I think there’s a profound point standing behind this sibling rivalry. Israel as a nation, though chosen by God and charged to be holy and unique, was in many ways just another nation, living by all the tricks and machinations that nations use to get one up on their neighbors. Each of our churches is also, in many respects, just another human organization, seeking to compete for attention and resources, like any organization. Why do we, in our lowly, ordinary humanity, deserve to think of ourselves as chosen and blessed by God, as an incarnation of God’s very kingdom? I think Jacob is wondering, as we might also wonder, why he deserves to inherit such a blessing—why not Esau, or anyone else. And we are close to Jacob’s plight in another way, for we also are well aware, now more than ever, that our two churches might not live forever. Will the inheritance be passed on?

Like Abraham in his trial when called to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob shows that he is willing to put everything on the line for God. He has already sent a big portion of his flocks and wealth ahead as a gift to Esau, hoping it will appease him. Then in our passage he sends his wives and his children across the Jabbok river. He is left alone. Alone the uncertainty of his life’s outcome. With no family to distract him or to help him pretend there is no crisis.   Alone in not knowing what God has in store for him.

Then the story gets really weird, but as weird as it gets, amid all those puns that don’t work for us, the amazing thing is that we still feel like we are at the brink of a great and compelling mystery. A man appears and wrestles with Jacob. Or was it a man? It also seems to have been an angel of God—or was it God in person, this stranger who refused to give his name? Stranger still, Jacob seems to get the better of the man / God, who, like a vampire, seems to be desperate to leave before sunrise, and begs Jacob to let him go. Jacob doesn’t let the man / God go until he blessed him, making Jacob a serial blessings-stealer. Then the man/ God renames him, saying “You shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob himself gets in the last pun, this time on the name Peniel, which he riffs on by saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” He says this because it was thought that God was so holy, and so incomprehensibly beyond us mere mortals, that were we to see God directly, face to face, God would blow our minds.

It’s all very strange. But maybe that’s just what we need a little dose of. We get in the habit of trying to make church very normal. And so we emphasize the normal good things that we do as a church: some will say we encourage fellowship and instill good values, others will say we serve those in need and those who are neglected and rejected. All of this is good. Who would object to any of that? But perhaps we’ve made ourselves so normal, so commonsensical, that neither we nor anyone outside can remember a compelling reason to come to church and attend to the “Spirit” section of worship, especially when folks can find fellowship, values, and social justice outside of the church if they want to.

But where else can you strive with God, and overcome God? What a bafflingly fresh way to think about what we do here. We usually talk about how God has blessed us and given us so much, and didn’t even hold back God’s own son, but gave him up for our sakes. God just gives and gives, and we respond with thanks. But I think this weird Jacob story is showing us the underbelly of our religion. We take from God. We appropriate God as our own. We do claim God is present with us, do we not? Implying that God is more present here than elsewhere? And that we are particularly blessed? and we exert ourselves, not without some wounds, in our struggle to overcome God and claim this blessing. Who is more guilty of this, more like Jacob, more perilously near to being a blessing-stealer, than I? Don’t I pretend to have God in my clutches, to have overcome the mysterious and unknowable one, when I supposedly tell you what God wants you to do? This also is faith; not just a grateful, obedient receiving from God that we know from Abraham, but a terrifying and audacious grappling with God.

And God lets this be done by Jacob. God lets us us get away with claiming his name and authority, and forcing a blessing from it. God even lets humanity wrestle him to the cross. Maybe if we let the Jacob story shock us into seeing what we are doing here in a new light, we will take church less for granted. We too will, like Jacob, be amazed that we have come this close, as close as sharing a meal, to the God whom man cannot see face to face, and yet our lives have been preserved.



Fever, Sin, and the Doctor’s Office

Perhaps you share my cursed flaw.  You think that you are a reasonably intelligent person and should be at least listened to by a doctor when it comes to your own opinions about what ails you.

Thus it was that I found myself in the doctor’s office today.  I’ve had cold symptoms for two and a half weeks, particularly a persistent cough.  Silas had the cold first, briefly; Jessica got it the same time but was mostly over it after a week.  Five days ago, if not earlier, I discovered on my first day back from the beach that I had a fever:  a respectable 101.3.  By nightfall it had subsided, but it returned again in the late morning or around noon.  The next day I went to see a doctor.  He was incredibly casual, listening to my chest two quick times through my shirt.  I don’t believe he checked my glands or throat.  He told me I have a URI (upper respiratory infection) that was stubborn and causing the fever.  He decreed it was not bacterial (his notes said that he “educated patient that the fever was viral, not bacterial).  Perhaps he feels constantly put upon to prescribe antibiotics, which, true enough, should not be over-prescribed.  My chest is clear, he concluded (if quickly), so it must be viral.  Besides, as he said in his notes, studies show that antibiotics administered after the normal 7-10 days of a cold typically do not help.  Why attend to the particular of a case when you have statistics?  I should add that he was friendly, rather funny, and maddeningly breezy about the whole thing.  I had never had a cold or flu like this, that suddenly turns into a fever after two weeks.

Meanwhile, I friend mentioned something he had seen about a new tick born illness.  I found the article on anaplasmosis.  Apparently it attacks white blood cells.  Interesting match of symptoms.  Fever.  I had experienced a loss of appetite most of last week, long before I detected a fever–and that wouldn’t go along with a cold (unless it was a flu I had).  Tiredness, which only lately had become a problem.  No rash, unlike Lyme disease.   There were other symptoms that didn’t match, but the disease manifests itself variously.

I was by no means convinced by one article that I must have this disease.  I know that we non-physicians have our hypochondriacal tendencies.  And I hadn’t discovered a tick bite for a few months.  I found engorged ticks on me in April and in May, but I never had a rash.

But I was enjoying the puzzle of it all.  Why this fever, so far into a cold?  And why was I not getting better?  Then I a fun hypothesis came to me.  What if I contracted anaplasmosis back in May, even, but it didn’t manifest itself?  It often only shows up in people with compromised immune systems, esp. the elderly.  What if I was keeping it in check with my immune system until I caught a cold in late July, and then with the added stress on my immune system, the anaplasmosis bacteria got the upper hand?  Could it then start to manifest the symptoms of fever and fatigue, while also impairing my white blood cells from getting rid of this cold.  And why can’t I beat this cold, anyway, if my lungs are clear and I have no sinus infection?

I enjoyed my hypothesis and respected it as such–a long-shot blind guess badly in need of expert testing.  But worthy of a Doc Martin episode!  I looked forward to going back to the doctor.  Since three more days had passed, and my fever had persisted (lessened but not nullified by taking acetaminophen), it was time.

Of course I was going to be crushed and disrespected.  What, should I dare to consider myself a partner in my own diagnosis?  Who do I think I am?  The doctor–a different one–was pleasant.  And he did a better job.  He checked me out more thoroughly, and discovered a whistle going on when I breathe.  (He even let me hear it, which was fun.)  I made the mistake of mentioning early on that I had read about anaplasmosis.  I think he was alerted that he has a patient who has read something and has convinced himself that he has it.  I am sure this happens frequently.

So he reached the conclusion–not, oddly, seeking any additional tests–that I have something in the vicinity of bronchitis and perhaps a touch of pneumonia. (Not exactly precise.)  The first doctor had perhaps missed it.  But he would give me antibiotics.

I was expected to simply receive this and be grateful–which to some extent I was.  But I asked: “Could it be anaplasmosis?  I’ve had tick bites.”  Everything about his body posture was dismissive.  He didn’t look up.  “No,” he replied.  Perhaps I had the temerity to ask why not, or maybe he just added: “Tick-born illnesses are never URIs.”

Well, no shit, I wanted to say.  I already said I got the cold from my son.  He didn’t understand my argument at all, but he made it clear that he had no interest in my ideas.  Imagine, for instance, if he looked up and said, “Why do you think so?”  And then I made my case, which would include loss of appetite and the fact that the fever seemed to precede an evident infection in my lungs.  Then he could say: “Ah, that’s interesting.”  (This, after all, is how I used to respond to my students when they brought up ideas that I knew, from training in my expertise that far outstrips what this doctor has in his.)  Then he could review why my symptoms do and do not match that of anaplasmosis.  I would then feel like I had been listened to, even if his diagnosis stood.  As it is now, I can’t even tell if he gave the idea any serious attention.  I’m not even sure he knows much about anaplasmosis–a few years ago there was once case diagnosed in Hamden County.  But that’s why you have conversations, so that you both have an understanding.  Instead, I leave feeling disrespected and not listened to.

Imagine if I acted like that with my congregants?  If every time someone shared something that occurred to him when reading the Bible, I made it clear that his opinion is irrelevant, because I am a professional and he is not?  Pastors and professors can’t get away with such arrogance.  Why can doctors, when the issue is not the Bible or an Ibsen play but my own damn body?

I hope he is right.  But, while I’m no expert, I also know something about the philosophy of science.  I would not be surprised if this doctor never read Feyerabend, or Kuhn, or Foucault.  But he showed the classic symptoms: disregard what doesn’t fit into your current paradigm; police the borders of your professional identity.  It’s amazing how good scientists can be at shutting down the pursuit of truth.  This is one of those ironic guises of sin, when human beings, because of many factors but certainly pride among them, do the very thing they want not to do (Rom. 7).

And–not to get too puffed up with my own pride here–but what if my hypothesis were correct?  What if lots of people could carry a low-grade infection of anaplasmosis that doesn’t manifest itself until you contract something else, and then it contributes to that infection being much more stubborn.  These describes what many people have told me in the past year.

Now, look what I have done.  I have opened the internet door–and fortunately I have very few readers–to a mass panic and ‘alt-science’ movement, perhaps akin to the destructive theories about the dangers of child immunization.  Now everyone will be paranoid that we all have anaplasmosis!  I loathe such pseudoscience.  But now I understand a little better what feeds it: the unscientific arrogance of some professional physicians.

“Moana” and the Gospel

As I near the end of my vacation, my thoughts are beginning to turn again to the church in the world.  Today we took an indoor break at the Cape with Jessica’s family to watch a movie for the kids: the 2016 Disney movie Moana.  Silas had watched it on the plane sitting next to me several weeks ago and enjoyed it.

It is a very fine movie; all of us agreed, children and adults.  I am about as suspicious of Disney as anyone, but I am powerless to resist a moving and inspiring story decked out with catchy music and stunning animation.  There are also many important accomplishments in the movie I could dwell on: a strong female lead, a sympathetic portrayal of an often neglected culture, a plot that undercuts the appearance of an evil villain.

A worry crept in as I was swept along, nearly to the point of tears in some scenes.  How can the church compete–if that is the word–against a production so slick, so ideologically admirable and non-threatening, and a message so uplifting?  (But what was ‘the message?’  “Be true to yourself and your vocation?”  There was a strong theme of self-determination there, but set within an admirable communitarian ethic: Moana is supported and respected by her people and motivated by wanting to help them.  Ecology certainly factored in–relevant at a time when people in the region are facing severe consequences of climate change.  The mythology and theology of the movie were a bit of a jumble.   The origin of all the evil seemed to lie in a likely culprit: Maui was not loved as a child.  But the flaws here were inoffensive and did not get in the way.

I believe the Church cannot allow its particular story to be bowled over by the impressive feats of popular culture, even when done right.  Let’s not be churlish and resentful–we can admire where appropriate.  But the story of Jesus Christ and our union with him is not lacking at all by comparison with what is on offer in the theaters.  And the inspiring uplift that films provide is no substitute for lifelong practices within community that ought to be what we find at church.  So long as what we commit ourselves to is finally an alternative to the world of “products,” we will never have to worry about “competing.”  And I for one do not want to go up against the juggernaut that is Disney.


A Question about Conservative Congregationalists

With no sermons this month, I am looking for cheap and easy blog posts.  This was my response to a question from a congregant about the CCCC (Conservative Congregationalist Christian Convention).  I wrote a thoughtful answer so I figured I would post it.  And as it turns out, the question was coming from a different place than I assumed.  So someone else may find it more helpful than its intended recipient!

Thanks for this question.  I had heard about the Congregationalist churches who did not accept the 1957 merger that resulted in the UCC (from four existing bodies, including the Congregationalist Church).  It was helpful to do a little research on them, even if I only looked briefly at their web site.

The CCCC is the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference.  (Notice they are a “conference” because they do not believe that there is any real “church” beyond the individual congregation.)

Those who are attracted to their strongly Congregationalist views might want to be aware of their other beliefs, listed on their website as:

  • We believe the Bible consisting of the Old and New Testament, to be the only inspired, inerrant, infallible, authoritative Word of God written.
  • We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • We believe in the deity of Christ, in His virgin birth, in His sinless life, in His miracles, in His vicarious and atoning death through His shed blood, in His bodily resurrection, in His ascension to the right hand of the Father, and in His personal return in power and glory.
  • We believe that for salvation of lost and sinful man regeneration by the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential.
  • We believe in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit by Whose indwelling power and fullness the Christian is enabled to live a godly life in this present evil world.
  • We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.
  • We believe in the spiritual unity of all believers in Christ.

Some of these articles, taken individually, I have no problem with.  The first, however, is a statement of inerrancy of Scripture that is typical of evangelical Protestants.  Also the assertion of eternal punishment.  To me these are deeply problematic beliefs, and I’ve tried to make that case in some sermons.

Their extreme congregationalism was rejected by the founders of the UCC, although we maintain an essentially congregationalist structure.  (I have a book arguing that we are still too congregationalist, if you are interested in that argument; it’s a well-done book.)  Instead the UCC represents the more ecumenical vision of the church that is shared by mainline Protestant denominations, Eastern Orthodox churches, and since Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church.  Essential here is that Christ called his disciples to be one (John 17:21).  While we are nowhere near being actually one in practice and structure, these ecumenical churches have come incredibly far in the last 100 years.  I regularly attend the Granby/So Hadley Ecumenical Pastors breakfasts, and they are truly inspiring and really helpful.  Even if this ecumenical commitment is not obvious in the day-to-day operations of our church, it is a strong element of who we are.

You and I might share some concerns about the UCC.  The leadership is dominated by a progressive liberal cadre.  I do not reject their ideology, but I object to any attempt to replace the gospel with ideology, whether liberal or conservative.  I am a bold, vocal critic of this tendency in our denomination, whenever I have an appropriate audience.  I’ll leave you with some excerpts from my final reflection essay, written for the UCC History and Polity course I took this winter.  This was written to my instructor, who was trying to celebrate the UCC to the students.  I respect her for doing so, but as you’ll see, this is not my way of affirming the UCC identity.  You’ll see in the final paragraph my luke-warm affirmation of congregationalism, done in the highfalutin language of academics.

  • ••

Rel 691 UCC Polity etc.

Reflection Paper #2

Bill Wright

I understand myself to be called, in this context, to define the UCC critically rather than in a celebratory way.   I think all theological leaders in the church, when attempting to reflect on the church as a whole in order to guide it, should adopt an essentially self-critical stance.  In any event, I see my role as holding up what the UCC says and does to critique by the Word of God.[1] Once one acknowledges a particular social body as “my church,” one should seek nothing more than to reform this powers or social forces of this church to build it up into what God is calling it to be.  It is this spirit that we see in the unsparing self-criticism of Israel in the OT as well as of the church by Paul in his letters.  We who have been entrusted with power should above all criticize ourselves before God (1 Cor 4:4), and be mindful of our duty, according to the wonderful recent phrase, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  The emphasis then does not fall on celebrating what makes the UCC distinctive relative to other denominations, something for which there is a place, and which our readings have done from time to time.[2]   Leaders should especially be wary of the allure of marketing—a worldly (capitalist) strategy of identifying and beating the competition.  Instead, we should primarily think about what the church lacks, how it has missed or violated God’s intentions, how it remains impotent and lacking in gifts of the Spirit, etc.


My congregation stands in stark contrast to another picture I have of the UCC, strongly echoed in our readings, that features a leadership elite that is progressively activist and often theologically liberal or non-traditional.  I can now better see and appreciate some commonalities holding among both my congregation and the leadership: a general embrace of science and critical thinking, or at least a disinterest in Biblicism (sometime accompanied by a marked ignorance about the Bible and gravitation to other dubious sources of authority), an orientation to sanctified life here and now and not so much to otherworldly salvation.[4]  But there remains a strong disjuncture between church leadership and the laity (with the exception, I suspect, of some well-educated, urbane, and progressive congregations).  Our readings have identified the manifestation of the shift toward progressive multiculturalism in the GCs following the late 1960s.[5]  But otherwise I do not feel I have a good empirical and theoretical grasp on whence this arose.  I am suspicious of attempts to read the progressive multiculturalism as a natural outgrowth of our particular UCC tradition, since (a) a similar leadership profile exists in other denominations , and (b) I know I did not become a progressive multiculturalist because of my PC (USA) upbringing.  Lots of progressives are opting to join the UCC—are they (we) doing so because of something deep and distinctive in UCC tradition, or is the UCC being shaped by the self-segregation of American culture along ideological lines?  I do not feel I am in the position to address this important question.


But I can only affirm our congregational polity in the same way I came to affirm the similar polity of the CC(DOC): as a tragic necessity.  In light of all the cross means for renouncing power and coercion, in light of Paul’s repudiation of the Law in favor of the Spirit working both communally and in conscience, and in light of Jesus’ remarkable words against the “authority of the gentiles” (which the Church has been terrifically quick to re-baptize), I think the devolved authority of the congregational model is called for.  I strongly suspect that it has regrettably been shaped without sufficient theological reflection by the dubious modern political anthropology of John Locke.[6]  But for congregationalism to really have borne fruit would have required a tremendous effort of popular theological education.  But this has eluded the UCC and every other denomination, perhaps because an effective theological education of the laity would require a powerful theological consensus among theological experts, which is not be found within the discipline of modern theology.  All of this can be seen to stem from the tragedy of modern freedom, as it nurtures a diversity of views that erodes rather than enriching dialogue and fellowship.  At the level of congregations, what is nurtured is a democratic tyranny in which mutual submission to God is replaced by consumeristic entitlement.  I believe we can only strongly affirm our congregationalism in eschatological terms, according to the promise that points to a Time (and times that anticipate this Time) in which love and justice (read: freedom and transformation) will kiss.

[1] This is essentially Karl Barth’s position (CD I.1, p. 87).  I certainly don’t agree with Barth universally, nor with how he characterizes the “Word of God.”  But whatever that phrase means, it cannot be equated with whatever the church’s current self-understanding happens to be.

[2] Bendroth, pp. 5-6; Fackre, p. 55.

[3] He considers this problem and effectively sidelines it on p. 108.

[4] From the “UCC Style” slide in the week six lecture.

[5] Bendroth, 184f; Fackre, 59-60.

[6] See Walker, 143; Cambridge Platform, p. 16 (