Palms and Pies

A sermon preached at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, Vermont, on April 14, 2019

There is a movement within Christian worship in the last couple of decades to observe this day of the Christian year as Passion Sunday, or Palm/Passion Sunday, instead of just Palm Sunday. In other words, on this Sunday we observe in worship the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, but in the deliberate context of the rest of Holy Week. That often means including Scripture not only about the entry but also about the Passion of Christ, and to have the movement of our hymns go from “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” at the beginning of the hour to “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” at the end. This tendency toward observing Passion Sunday has historical connections, but the main concern that motivates it is to ensure that churchgoers get the whole picture. The reality is that most Protestants don’t come to church between Sundays, so if we observe only the triumphal entry today, most churchgoers will go from happy day (Palm Sunday) to happy day (Easter) with no opportunity to reflect on the all-important moment of Christ on the cross. And without the cross, however we interpret it, we do not understand the significance of Christ.

I think there’s a lot of wisdom in the move toward Passion Sunday and the concerns that motivate it. And yet there is cost. The cost is that in our movement toward the cross we do only a quick run past the spectacle of Palm Sunday. In our effort to encapsulate the full meaning of Holy Week in a Sunday service, we risk spending very little time on the beginning. The triumphal entry disappears in the shadow of the cross, and we leave church wondering, “Why did we pass out those palms?”

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Holy War on Hate

Like many of you, I have been struggling with the news coming out of New Zealand a week or so ago. Fifty people were killed in an act of terror on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The victims’ only crime was gathering as Muslims for prayer. The attack was perpetrated by a man who identifies as a white nationalist, a resister to the alleged global effort to exterminate white people. His manifesto, meant to inspire others in the cause, was itself inspired by (among other influences) white nationalist rhetoric, efforts, and validations here in the United States. For a week the entire nation of New Zealand has been mourning fifty people killed in the name of hate.

 

I’ve been preoccupied with this news this week, and with the unimpeded rise in dangerous racist sentiment here and around the world. As a Christian, I also am underwhelmed by the response of the Church to moments like these. To be sure, many Christian denominations came out immediately with thoughtful and earnest denunciations of the violence and expressions of genuine sympathy and concern for the victims of this tragedy, and for New Zealand as a national community. But many of those statements strike my ear as somewhat innocuous, expressing genuine sorrow but not quite capturing the anger I have in moments like these. Our hearts go out to our Muslim sisters and brothers.… We must put an end to the violence…. Is this all that Christians can say?

 

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Practicing Patient Persistence

This week many Methodists in the United States are struggling with their denomination’s latest reaffirmation of opposition to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy.  For many this will feel like the last straw, the final push to leave the Methodist fold.  Whether to stay and fight the good fight or seek a church community that more closely shares our convictions is a complicated and difficult decision.  But the decision to stay and persist in the struggle for inclusion and equality can be seen as a virtuous one, consistent with both Christian forbearance and the righteous struggle for justice.  In Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church, I wrote this about persistence as an expression of Christian patience:

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The Joy of Vipers

A sermon preached the third Sunday in Advent 2018

Texts: Luke 3:1-18; Philippians 4:4-9

I’m going out on a limb here, I know, but I bet John the Baptist didn’t have many friends. I mean, c’mon, the guy doesn’t sound like a fun person to hang around with. Let’s start with the way that he greets the throngs of people who come out to see him: “You brood of vipers!” Now the term “brood of vipers” will be my first choice if ever I make good on my dream of forming a motorcycle club, but it’s not a very pleasant greeting for a crowd of people who have come to the outskirts of town seeking the Messiah, a Deliverer from God. And it doesn’t get any better from there. The theme of John’s proclamation is divine judgment and repentance, not hope and salvation. He sounds like he’s basically threatening them, with all the wielding axes and impaling forks and the burning of unquenchable fire. He tells the people that they’re basically replaceable—“I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise children to Abraham.” And he’s not much more flattering to himself, telling the crowd, who thinks he may be the chosen one of God, “I’m nothing. I’m doing magic tricks here. The guy coming down the pike is so good, I couldn’t even take off his shoes.”

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The End of War

“The war to end war” or “the war to end all wars”—Woodrow Wilson’s borrow from H.G. Wells to justify World War I was met with cynicism even during the First World War, and since then has become a sardonic lament. Here, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, we know it ended nothing. The culmination of that conflict directly contributed to the rise of the Second World War, the end of which fed the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, which motivated interventions in the Middle East, and on and on and on…. World War I ended nothing; instead it contributed to the bloodiest century in human history.

The persistence of war in our world prompts the question for Christians: should we even expect the end of war? Is war a scourge to eliminate, or is it a necessary evil that we sometimes endure or even actively utilize? Should Christians be opposed to war, even when undertaken in the name of justice and peace?

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Miraculous Abundance

Convention suggests that what makes a miracle a miracle is its magical quality—something that is otherwise inexplicable, that bends the logic of time, space, or causality. That’s literally the definition of a miracle: “a surprising and welcome event that is not explicable by natural or scientific laws and is therefore considered to be the work of a divine agency.” I know, because I Googled it. There are plenty of accounts in the Scriptures that follow this definition, and there are plenty of people today who believe in these kinds of miracles and wait on them in their lives. But if you struggle with the idea that God regularly works by suspending the laws of nature, then these miraculous stories may become less compelling to you. We may be tempted to ignore or dismiss them because they seem so fantastical, because they run counter to the way we understand the world to work. No less a thinker than Thomas Jefferson famously rejected the biblical miracle stories for just this reason, literally cutting them out of his Bible. And if we find the stories themselves unbelievable, then we may not be persuaded that the point they’re trying to make with tales of wonder is compelling either.

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The Importance of Being Father

Truth be told, after thirteen years of fatherhood, I have to admit that I still am not used to thinking about myself in the context of Father’s Day. Father’s Day doesn’t feel like it’s about me, at least not intuitively. On Father’s Day I reflect on my own father. I remember the very good moments with my dad, moments that in some ways get more poignant as he and I get older and the relationship roles reverse just a bit. I think about the ways in which I am shaped by being the son of an Appalachian coal miner, influences that go down to my core, accidental on his part, but molding who I am as a person and as a professional. These days I spend a little of Father’s Day telling myself I’ll be more faithful this year in calling home and visiting. On Father’s Day, I think like a son. It continues to catch me a bit by surprise that this day could also be about me.

And yet, being a father is who I am, and with every passing year it becomes as formative to my character as being a son. My sense of self and my responsibilities in this life are defined in large part from the duties of parenthood; my calendar certainly reflects that I have two jobs now. I think as a father now, too. In the classroom, I approach many of the ethical issues I teach with different eyes. In the airport, my heart beats faster when I hear a small voice crying. I know more about circumstances we broadly refer to as “special needs” than I ever did before. I am more invested and interested in a place and culture on the other side of the world (where my sons were born) than I ever was before. I watch baseball and NASCAR now; as it turns out, there are sports other than football played in this country! I am father now.

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