Obama and His Preacher

Barack Obama has endured criticism for his membership in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and for his association with his now-retired pastor, Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Wright’s inflammatory remarks have met with angry disapproval. Yet this reflection is not about Rev. Wright. I am writing, instead, about Obama and his understanding of the Church.

Political pundits have said that Obama should publicly refute his pastor. They have written that if Obama had any integrity, he would withdraw his membership from his Trinity church. These people are merely revealing that Obama’s understanding of the gospel is far more mature than theirs. Indeed, these “experts” cannot fathom the integrity that Obama has shown.

Thus far at least, Obama’s actions and words witness to an understanding of the church that is orthodox and biblical. In the tradition of Christian faith, Obama seems to understand that we do not “choose” our church, nor does the church exist to please us and to meet our needs. Rather, the church is the body of Christ. It can be wrong, and often is. Its preachers can speak words that are not the gospel, and we often do. Read more

The Road to Exile

a road sign indicates curves in the road aheadIt isn’t likely that the text from 1 Peter will take center stage in many sermons this Sunday, but in thinking through all of the day’s appointed readings—their particular concerns and their possible associations, it’s not a bad place to begin. For one thing, we read portions of 1 Peter for several consecutive Sundays during Easter of Year A in the common lectionary, passages which constitute something of an Easter catechesis for the great fifty days. But more than that, the letter’s theme of “exile” gives us a useful framework for interpreting our own life and witness in light of the familiar Road to Emmaus story. Read more

Do You Believe in the Resurrection?

women at the tomb see risen ChristThere were doubt and struggle on that first Easter morning and in the days and weeks that followed. But doubt and struggle were not obstacles to faith; they were its necessary precondition.

Throughout history and into our own time there have been persons on a mission to “prove” the resurrection as historical fact, and there have been others intent on disproving it. Last spring, CNN aired a special program called “What Is A Christian?” It was predictable and disappointing in ways that these sorts of shows almost always are: The earnest host, the likable Anderson Cooper, introduced segments about healing, global warming, miracles in the Bible, and then believers were pitted against non-believers, persons of faith against skeptics and naysayers, the would-be “provers” against those intent to disprove. Read more

The Violence of Love

mural of Oscar RomeroEaster Monday marked the anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, murdered while celebrating the Eucharist at the chapel of Divine Providence Cancer Hospital in San Salvador on March 24, 1980.

We should not wonder that a church has a lot of cross to bear. Otherwise, it will not have a lot of resurrection. An accommodating church, a church that seeks prestige without the pain of the cross, is not the authentic church of Jesus Christ. (February 19, 1978) Read more

The Face of Race

a face made up of sections of different faces

At the foot of that cross, inside the thousands of churches across the city, I imagined the stories of ordinary black people merging with the stories of David and Goliath, Moses and Pharaoh, the Christians in the lion’s den, Ezekiel’s field of dry bones. Those stories – of survival, and freedom, and hope – became our story, my story; the blood that had spilled was our blood, the tears our tears; until this black church, on this bright day, seemed once more a vessel carrying the story of a people into future generations and into a larger world. – Barack Obama, 19 March 2008, Philadelphia 

When William F. Buckley died a few weeks ago, much was made of his love of language and his penchant for polysyllables–sesquipedalian that he was. Where a simple expression would do, Buckley preferred instead to dazzle and intimidate with word choices that were exotic, obscure, inaccessible. For Buckley it was all about vocabulary (though of course his politics were pretty scary). Which is exactly what it is not about for Barack Obama. Read more

Nice Guys and Crucifixion

palm leaf
Even if we have somehow managed to remain blissfully ignorant of where our Lenten journey has been taking us, or with whom we are traveling, the traditional Gospel text for Palm Sunday—and indeed, all of Matthew’s Gospel from Chapter 21 on—serves as a rather abrupt aide memoire. For some time I couldn’t really get my mind around the significance of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. Why a colt; why the palms; why the coats in the road; why the crowds shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David?” And what did any of that have to do with Jesus’ going immediately from this spectacle to the temple and picking a fight with some of the most powerful men in Jerusalem? Did Matthew or one of his redactors omit or edit out an important transition between verses 11 and 12, or was I simply missing something? Read more

The Risen Lazarus is No Stranger

Lazarus arisesThe eleventh chapter of John’s gospel brims with riches, providing the biblical verse nearly everyone remembers, “Jesus wept,” as well as the clearest possible statement of the functional principle underlying every City of Man, “It is better for one man to die than for the people to perish.” Lazarus’ tomb is also fertile soil for midrash, the imaginative stories in which the student rubs again those irritant nodes of scripture, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, Lot’s wife, Jacob and the Angel, and Jephthah’s vow. Chesterton, Browning and Plath, among others, turned the story into poetry, while rock bands as diverse as The Boo Radleys, Carman, Chimaira, and Placebo have Lazarus songs. The Christian East, in particular, devotes significant liturgical time and theological reflection to Lazarus rising from the tomb. And, speaking of tombs, Lazarus has far better claim than most New Testament figures to more than one burial place. Read more

What Do You See?

Jesus healing blind men

“Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” — John 9:40-41

When I was in seminary, one of the questions that we were instructed to ask ourselves in any ministerial context was: “Where and who are the invisible people?” This question was intended to help us to find those people in every community that are out of sight and out of mind to so many in the church and to ask the crucial questions about why they had been relegated to the margins and pushed “out of sight.” I was in a meeting recently when someone critiqued this language of invisibility. Invisibility, she argued, indicates that there is something inherent to the person or group of people that makes them unseen. The real issue is not that they are invisible, but that we are blind to them. These people and communities exist, materially and concretely, in plain sight—but those of us who inhabit our middle class, mostly Anglo, mainline society are able to live our lives comfortably pretending as if those on the margins do not exist. Read more

Coming To Our Senses

This year our Lenten journey through the wilderness is not one that we walk alone. The persons who come face to face with Jesus in the Gospel of John on the Sundays in Lent are our traveling companions. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Mary, Martha, even Lazarus, all have a place on our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. From Sunday to Sunday while each of these persons experiences Jesus in individual ways, collectively they reveal to us the fullness of who we are as well as our total emptiness before Jesus. Read more

Come and See

Third Sunday in Lent – John 4:5-42

Interpreters of this lengthy passage are usually quick to point out the “three strikes” against the woman at the well: her gender, her ethnicity, and her dubious marital status. And despite the fact that she engages Jesus in the longest conversation he has with anyone in the gospels, friend or foe; that she can hold her own in a theological debate; that she is the first person Jesus reveals himself to in John’s gospel; that she is the first evangelist and her testimony brings many to faith; despite all of this—what the Samaritan woman is most remembered for, it seems, is that she had five husbands. Read more