June 14, 2015
We bid fond farewell to Douglas Davidson in worship and at Cook-out in appreciation of his service to us. We wish him well in his new position!
(Photos by Jin Chin)
When I was a member of Central Baptist Church of Wayne, Pennsylvania, we went through an interim period of about a year and a half in the mid‐1990s when the church was between pastors. During the previous decade, our church was led by a visionary pastor who provided strong direction. After he left, the church was very intentional about going through a slow and careful discernment process about its own ministry priorities. What parts of the congregation’s identity and activities were primarily the previous pastor’s vision, and what parts truly belonged to the congregation? I thought this discernment
regarding the congregation’s mission was essential. The church needed to be clear about who it was; then it could open itself to the leadership of a new pastor whose vision would compliment the congregation’s sense of its calling.
I was reminded a bit of this experience during the past month, as I have had different opportunities to see our congregation in action during Pastor Rick’s sabbatical month. Although Rick’s absence during the month of January certainly isn’t the same as an interim pastorate, the change in my responsibilities during these weeks has invited me into aspects of this congregation’s activity that I don’t experience as much in my usual role. I’ve enjoyed participating in Tuesday morning Bible studies, planning and leading worship, preparing the Midweek Message, and other tasks that aren’t normally on my plate. But
what I have appreciated most has been gaining a more intimate perspective on the way members of our congregation care for one another.
The members of our church’s Congregational Care Task Team play a primary role in coordinating our church’s effort to minister to one another. I appreciated having the opportunity to sit in on that team’s brainstorming session about how we can minister more effectively to the seniors in our congregation, and then to be in the council meeting as the team reported back. But it’s not just the members of that team. I am touched by how you pray for one another, visit those who can’t be with us on Sundays, check in on one another with phone calls and emails, provide rides to make sure people who don’t drive can get to worship, and so much more. I have long appreciated the strong sense of mission outreach that characterizes this small congregation.
But in the last month, I have gained a renewed appreciation for all the ways the members of this congregation care for one another. The early church historian Tertullian, writing near the end of the second century, reported that what observers found most striking about the early church was the way people cared for each other. He reported that the Romans used to marvel at the Christians and exclaim, “See how they love one another!” I’ve thought the same thing several times this month as I have sat with different members of our congregation. I’m moved by the ways you seek to care for one another. If you listen to my conversations with the kids on Sunday mornings, you probably already know that I think this is pretty close to the heart of the gospel.
“What’s most important?” they asked Jesus.
“Two things,” he responded. “Love God, and love others.” May we continue to grow in our ability to live more fully into that invitation.
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families
In this week’s Scripture readings, two of the three passages involve miracle stories, each of which comes right near the beginning of one of the gospels. In Mark 1:21‐28, we read of Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and then healing a man there who has “an unclean spirit.” In the Gospel of John, likely written twenty to twenty‐five years after Mark, we encounter in chapter 2 the story of the wedding in Cana, where Jesus famously turns water into wine. Each of these stories plays a critical role in the author’s initial presentation of who he understands Jesus to be. Both miracles point beyond themselves, contributing to the gospelwriter’s portrait of Jesus.
As I have considered these two stories anew this week, I really appreciated the way Brian McLaren articulates the dilemma that these and other miracle stories present for many contemporary readers. (A portion of McLaren’s commentary is printed below.) I think he’s right in suggesting that any serious consideration of these miracle stories raises difficult questions about how God moves in the world. If we accept the accounts as historic, we may wonder why we don’t experience similar miracles more frequently, Yet if we’re more skeptical, we can easily end up with a God who seems to be boxed in and confined by our own beliefs about what is and isn’t possible.
I enjoy wrestling with these questions, and my sense is that many of you do, too. I value the work of McLaren and other contemporary biblical scholars who encourage a more literary approach to Scripture that emphasizes discovering the meaning of such stories over questions about their historicity. But I’m also aware that those scholars who focus attention on the search for the “historical Jesus” are nearly unanimous in understanding Jesus as a healer and miracle worker. While it may be difficult to use critical historical methods to verify the details of any particular miracle account, Baptist scholar William Herzog affirms that, “it is, historically speaking, a virtual certainty that Jesus performed mighty works that we call healings and exorcisms” (William R. Herzog, Prophet and Teacher, p. 19). So we are still left the question of what to do with these stories that, at least to some extent, challenge our understanding of how the world works.
There’s no easy answer to questions like these. The gospel stories are rich with possibilities and implications. I believe God invites us to keep wrestling with them, and to do so together, in community. I’m grateful to be part of a congregation that is committed to doing exactly that.
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families
You can’t go many pages in the gospels without encountering a miracle. Some of us find it easy and exciting to believe in miracles. Others of us find them highly problematic.
If you find it easy to believe in miracles, the gospels are a treasure of inspiration. But you still have to deal with one big problem: the miracles in the gospels easily stir hopes that are almost always dashed in people’s lives today. For example, in Matthew 9 you read about a little girl being raised from the dead, but since that time millions of faithful, praying parents have grieved lost children without miraculous happy endings. In Matthew 14, you read about fish and bread being multiplied to feed the hungry, but since that day, how many millions of faithful, praying people have slowly starved, and no miracle came? Doesn’t the possibility of miracles only make our suffering worse when God could grant them but doesn’t? It’s all so much worse if accusatory people then blame the victim for not having enough faith.
If you are skeptical about miracles, you avoid these problems. But you have another problem, no less significant: if you’re not careful, you can be left with a reduced world, a disenchanted, mechanistic world where the impossible is always and forever impossible. You may judge the miracle stories in the gospels as silly legends, childish make‐believe, false advertising, or deceitful propaganda. But in banishing what you regard as superstition, you may also banish meaning and hope. If you lock out miracles, you can easily lock yourself in—into a closed mechanistic system, a small box where God’s existence doesn’t seem to make much difference.
There is a third alternative, a response to the question of miracles that is open to both skeptics and believers in miracles alike. Instead of “Yes, miracles actually happened,” or “No, they didn’t really happen,” We could ask another question: What happens to us when we imagine miracles happening? In other words, perhaps the story of a miracle in intended to do more than inform us about an event that supposedly happened in the past, an event that if you were to believe it, might prove something else.
Perhaps a miracle story is meant to shake up our normal assumptions, inspire our imagination about the present and the future, and make it possible for us to see something we couldn’t see before. Perhaps the miracle that really counts isn’t the one that happened to them back then, but one that could happen in us right now as we reflect upon the story.
‐‐Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, 96‐97
One joy of my expanded role during January while Pastor Rick is away is having the opportunity to share in our congregation’s Tuesday morning Bible study. Yesterday, I spent an hour and a half at Marylea McLean’s home with eight members of our church, discussing this week’s three Scripture passages. As most of you know, we have been following the year-long alternative lectionary presented in Brian McLaren’s We Make the Road by Walking in planning our worship as well as our weekly Bible studies this year.
Among the passages we examined today was the section from Luke 4 where Jesus enters the temple, picks up the scroll, and inaugurates his public ministry by reading the familiar yet powerful words from the 61st chapter of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19). Luke reports that after reading, Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down, before asserting, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
In our discussion at Bible study, Thelma Parodi picked up on a point Brian McLaren emphasizes in his commentary on this passage. Jesus makes the bold claim that, in him, Isaiah’s promise has been fulfilled. As of that moment, the prophet’s words no longer reflect some hope for the distant future. McLaren notes that if someone declares things will improve someday, that may be “interesting and acceptable,” but it serves to “postpone until the future any need for real change in the hearers’ lives.” On the other hand, “For Jesus to say the promised time was here already, fulfilled, today…that was astonishing. That required deep thinking and radical adjustment.” And apparently, those who heard Jesus say these words found such a call to change more than a bit disconcerting. Although their immediate response seems gracious, it’s not long before they’ve driven him out of town and are seeking to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30)
As I thought about the immediacy of Jesus’ claim, I found myself thinking about a phrase from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech in the 1963 March on Washington. In calling for an end to racial injustice, King spoke of the need for action amid the “fierce urgency of now.” King declared:
We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.
I hear in the words of Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. an immediacy that speaks to our task as disciples today. The “fierce urgency of now” presses upon us to build communities where every life matters, where all people are treated with justice, dignity, and respect. Similarly, Jesus invites us to get swept up in God’s reign today, immediately, in this moment.
God is moving in our world today. Can we perceive it? Are we ready to participate in it? The need is urgent, and the time is now.
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families
The next three Sundays will be a bit of a shift from our normal routine here at First Baptist Church of Palo Alto. While Pastor Rick is away on study leave for the rest of the month, we will be welcoming as our guest preacher Dr. Jennifer Davidson, associate professor of worship and theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley. After twenty‐some years of marriage, I feel like I know Jen pretty well—and yet I always find fresh insights and challenges every time I have the opportunity to hear her preach. I know you will appreciate getting to know her better as we worship together over the next three weeks.
During Adult Spiritual Formation this Sunday, I will be leading the first of two sessions exploring John Shelby Spong’s fascinating book on the Gospel of John: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I hope you’ll join us; I think you’ll be intrigued and challenged by Bishop Spong’s unique take on John’s Gospel.
We will look forward to seeing you this Sunday at 10:00 am!
The turning of the calendar presents a wonderful opportunity to assess where we are, and where we’d like to be. What better time is there to think about what is most important to us, and to consider how we might devote our time and attention to those things? What might we do to root ourselves more deeply in God’s love, so that this love might flow through us more fully? At their best, I think New Year’s resolutions are all about asking those kinds of questions, and then seeking to find small and large ways to put our answers into practice.
If you’re wondering how you might do that, could I suggest that you join in our Adult Spiritual Formation after worship each Sunday? We have an excellent line up this month. On January 4, Dona Smith‐Powers will be leading a conversation about her experience at a recent conference on Palestine. On the next two Sundays, I will be leading a study of John Shelby Spong’s fascinating book on the Gospel of John: The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic. I had an opportunity to take a week‐long intensive course with Bishop Spong this summer, and I think you’ll be intrigued and inspired by his take on this unique Gospel. (The book is a great read, too. We’ll order a few copies for the church, but I’d encourage you to purchase your own copy.) And then on the final Sunday of the month, Dr. Jennifer Davidson will be leading a conversation about her recent experiences with the Black Lives Matter movement as it seeks to challenge racism within the police and criminal justice system.
Speaking of Dr. Davidson, I am delighted to say that we’ll have her as our guest preacher for three consecutive Sundays this month while pastor Rick is away on study leave. Jennifer Davidson is the associate professor of worship and theology at American Baptist Seminary of the West. She is a gifted preacher whom you will not want to miss—and I would say that even if we weren’t married! I am delighted to have the opportunity to share the worship leadership with Jennifer during the three Sundays while Pastor Rick is away this month.
I’m also pleased to announce that our January mission offering will be going to a special project selected by our youth. In partnership with ABCUSA and Baptist churches in Burundi, our offering will support efforts to promote free‐range chicken farming among families living in one of the poorest areas of that African nation. You can read more about that effort elsewhere in the Spire, and you’ll be hearing more about it each Sunday during January.
May we all open ourselves to fresh experiences of God in our midst in this New Year. Blessings to you for 2015!
Minister with Children, Youth, and Families
In Advent we anticipate the coming of Christ, the Word made flesh. We celebrate that Jesus was born into the muck and ugliness of our fractured world. We remember that, in Jesus, God has walked among us, experiencing the joys and agonies of being human, in all its hungers and passions and struggles. We worship a God who became incarnate, who became more fully known to us in the life of a particular human living in Palestine 2,000 years ago.
What’s the significance of the incarnation, this peculiar Christian idea that God came to us in human form? More particularly, how does this understanding of an “embodied” God shape our understanding both of who God is and of what it means to be human?
This past Sunday, the youth and I were looking at statistics on the website of the American Baptist Churches USA that reminded us that 14 million children live in poverty in the United States and Puerto Rico. We sometimes romanticize the fact that Jesus was born to a poor young woman in an unremarkable village. But what does it mean to follow a Christ born into poverty when so many children are suffering, even here in the richest nation in the world?
We say that the church today is the living body of Christ. But just as Jesus’ own body was broken by the violence of the cross, our news is filled with the stories of other human bodies being broken, terrorized, and marginalized. I think sometimes it’s difficult for us to make the connections between the wounding of Jesus body and the bodies of those wounded by violence today. But when I heard that Michael Brown’s dead body was left lying in the street in Ferguson, Missouri, for four hours after he was killed, I couldn’t help thinking of how the Roman Empire left the bodies of the crucified hanging on display as a symbol of what would happen to those who defy its power. Just as the child of Mary was the victim of violence, far too many of our own children fall victim to violence, especially in communities of color. Following the One who was crucified demands that we share the outrage of those who have repeatedly been treated as if their lives, their bodies, and their children do not matter.
Several years ago, a few months after Hurricane Katrina, the church where I was worshipping took part in a unique Advent celebration. Rather than the traditional Christmas decorations, the front of the sanctuary was “decorated” to look like one of the many makeshift emergency shelters that had sprung up in the hurricane’s aftermath. Blue tarps were draped around the chancel, and several large plywood signs were spray-painted with words like “Help!” and “Save Us,” and “Need Water.” It was a powerful and deeply disturbing reminder that Jesus was not really born into the kind of bucolic pastoral scenes depicted in our nativity sets. He was born into a world of extreme human need, a world in which people were hungry and thirsty and marginalized and homeless and suffering. This is the world God loves.
God became one of us, took on this vulnerable human body, in order that we might know God’s love and might be empowered to live into the fullness of our humanity. And then God allowed Godself to be subjected to the worst our world of sin and death could deliver, in order to show us how these forces might be overcome through love and compassion. The poor child born in Bethlehem, the risen Christ who has unified us as his body, calls us to solidarity with all whose bodies are broken and marginalized,
so that we and our world might be made whole.