Theology Feed

Pastoral Prayer upon the death of James Cone

This morning's pastoral prayer at First Central Congregational UCC of Omaha:

Yesterday our brother James Cone died. Cone was one of the greatest American theologians. He was born and raised in Arkansas during segregation, and became the founder of Black Liberation Theology, a longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary, and an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Cone formulated a theology of liberation from within the context of the Black experience of oppression, interpreting the central kernel of the Gospels as Jesus' identification with the poor and oppressed, and the resurrection as the ultimate act of liberation. He has deeply influenced my theology.

In his masterwork, God of the Oppressed, he wrote, "Jesus Christ is not a proposition, not a theological concept which exists merely in our heads. He is an event of liberation, a happening in the lives of oppressed people struggling for political freedom." That understanding helped to empower my own work on equal rights for LGBT people.

And in his late great book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which our Theology Brunch discussed in March, he wrote,

The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the "cost of discipleship," it has become a form of "cheap grace," an easy way to salvation that doesn't force us to confront the power of Christ's message and mission. Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together, until we can identify Christ with the "recrucified" black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

And his work convicts me of my sin, opening new paths for redemption and reconciliation.

Let us begin our time of pastoral prayer with a moment of silent reflection.

Silence

Gracious God. Thank you for sending us James Cone to be our teacher.

He taught us who Jesus was and is.

He taught us what the cross means. And the resurrection means.

He taught us how to be saved and liberated.

And how worship can empower us for the struggle of life.

He taught us who you are, God. That you are the God of the oppressed.

Without his teaching we might still be mired in misunderstanding and sin because of our racism and sexism and homophobia.

We might still be worshipping an idol.

As he is welcomed into your peace,

May his spirit ever live,

In power and glory.

And now we pray, as Jesus has taught us,

Our Father who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,

Thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our debts
as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power

and the glory, forever. Amen.


Free of Charge

Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of GraceFree of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace by Miroslav Volf
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Volf's Exclusion and Embrace is one of the best books on forgiveness. But it is a deeply theological and philosophical book (with a section on Hegel, for instance) meaning it is unlikely to be read by the average lay person.

This volume is accessible and not an academic book at all. While also updating Volf's deep thinking about the topic.

Volf is from the Balkans and so his ideas have been refined in the crucible of political oppression, civil war, and genocide. And yet he takes seriously the Christian commitment to nonviolence, peacemaking, and forgiving. Even forgiving when you have been the victim of horrific violence and abuse.

I am about to preach a series on forgiveness, so it was good to refresh myself with this good book, one that I will also recommend to congregants grappling with this most essential of practices.

View all my reviews

A Community of Giving

From my theology reading today:

"Finally, the Spirit counters our indolence by placing us within the community of Christ's body. Community helps craft us into good givers. It's in the community that the Spirit suffuses our giving with hope; we hope because are part of a community of hope. It's in the community that the Spirit mold our character; we display a life of virtue because we live in a community that values and fosters virtue. And how does the Spirit energize and direct our talents? We allow the community's needs to lay claim on us, and we seek the community's wisdom to help us discern what we are good at. Finally, it is by the Spirit and through the waters of baptism that we die with Christ and rise to new life in him. We don't receive the Spirit's hope, the Spirit's fruit, the Spirit's gifts, and Christ's life on our own as isolated individuals. They are ours as we are members of a community of giving, whether that community is a family, a circle of close friends, or a church."--Miroslav Volf in Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace

Then a couple of paragraphs later he writes, "Communities don't make givers.  Givers are not made by humans at all.  They are born--born of the Spirit through the good practices of communities."

This spiritual truth is one reason we must resist our current political administration so and create small communities of virtue.

 


Renounce, Resist, Rejoice

"The church is an Easter community created out of the crucified and risen body of Jesus, enveloped by empires, but not overwhelmed. The church is a graced gathering that has been transformed by the good news of God's life-giving reign. The church is the assembly in which the holy and mysterious presence of Christ Jesus is welcomed. The church on Easter Sunday . . . is called to trust in this good news so deeply that it renounces all that opposes it, resists all that seeks to upend it, and rejoices in God's gracious resurrection power that changes everything, even this current age. Preach to the church, preacher. Preach Easter in the age of Trump. All are awaiting resurrection while we endure this tomb."--Michael Coffey in his essay "Renounce, Resist, Rejoice: Easter Preaching in the Age of Trump" in the Easter 2018 issue of Journal for Preachers.


Francis on Fake News & the Truth

Good remarks and a fine prayer yesterday from Pope Francis on "fake news" and our pursuit of truth.  An excerpt:

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.


"An excess beyond all excesses"

An interesting perspective on the Incarnation from R. R. Reno:

It’s easy to step back and denounce the excesses of the Christmas season: the orgy of spending, too much food, too much drink, too many parties, and expensive ski vacations that bring aching credit card hangovers. Easy, but mistaken.

I’m not in favor of spending a lot to finance fantasies of Christmas perfection, nor do I endorse the sort of gluttony and the psychological overload of “special moments” that makes us feel as though Christmas is a celebratory marathon to recover from rather than savor. Yet, the basic impulse toward excess is not wrongheaded. In fact, given the theological meaning of Christmas, it’s altogether fitting in its way.

He then develops this idea theologically:

God does not give himself to us by assembling the good things of life into a giant banquet. Instead, we get Jesus, the infant child, who is God incarnate. God gives himself lavishly and without reserve, but in one and only one present, as it were, not serially, not variously, not like a multi-course dinner spread out over many tables.


Hauerwas: Protestants Won. Now what?

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has an interesting take on Reformation 500 in the Washington Post.  Protestants won.  The RCC has reformed itself to address Luther's critiques. Now what?

That the Reformation has been a success, however, has put Protestantism in a crisis. Winning is dangerous — what do you do next? Do you return to Mother Church? It seems not: Instead, Protestantism has become an end in itself, even though it’s hard to explain from a Protestant point of view why it should exist. The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share. It’s a dismaying circumstance.

This is an enjoyably provocative essay, but what's missing is an exploration of the ongoing nature of the Reformation, something stressed by most of the traditions.  So though the 16th century issues may have been largely resolved, the Protestant spirit and style opened us up to further developments.  That the RCC may have caught up to the 16th century in the mid-20th doesn't address the 500 years of further development on the part of Protestants.


Radiant Suggestion

For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world's appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs and forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.--Mary Oliver


Luther's The Freedom of a Christian

Today I read Martin Luther's 1520 manifesto "The Freedom of a Christian."  It is quite good.  I will be quoting from the text in upcoming sermons as part of our Reformed series.

At the beginning, he sets down two propositions which are both true: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all."

Here was a passages I enjoyed:

Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.

Since I'm also re-reading Kant ahead of teaching him again in ethics class in a few weeks, I felt the influence from Luther to Kant was clearly evident.  Kant's notion of freedom is autonomy from our desires and from any law other than that chosen by us.  We are freed to act morally. Luther also writes of freedom from the law and that once set free we can live a good life of love as we choose it as a response to God's grace rather than as a necessity to earn our salvation.  Their ideas are not the same, but one can see how Kant's notion would emerge from a milieu governed by Luther's ideas.