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April 2008

On Jeremiah Wright

Last night I took the time to watch the entire presentation that Rev. Wright gave to the National Press Club. Here are my impressions.

First, the presentation itself is the most intelligent and articulate presentation of liberation theology which I have heard. I would encourage everyone to watch it. Wright lives up to his reputation as one of the leading religious voices of our time. Though unknown to many not in the profession, Wright is viewed as one of America's best preachers, invited to conferences and workshops, and used in seminary classes on preaching. His church's ministries are well known and admired. In the last few weeks I've read many statements by other religious figures in support of Wright's reputation (including a good one by Martin Marty yesterday; Marty was one of Wright's professors).

Second, though he is speaking from the particular voice of black liberation theology, the main points he makes are those of mainstream Christian theology. The prophetic critique of empire is prominent in the theology of the twentieth century, including such figures as Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and John Howard Yoder. And it is dominant in the theologies of most contemporary theologians, including such prominent and varied voices as Walter Brueggemann, John Dominic Crossan, Stanley Hauerwas, Marcus Borg, Walter Wink, and N. T. Wright.

Now about the Q & A. What I witnessed was a man deeply hurt and angry, egged on by the crowd, engaging in a form of quick repartee. In appearance it weakens the brilliance of the previous presentation. Some have found it to be arrogant or narcissistic; and maybe it is. All that said, I am unsure what is so offensive here. It was not admirable, but does not seem worthy of the anger it has generated.

The particular point about HIV/AIDS is raised by many. I have three responses. 1) I do not share Rev. Wright's view on this issue, though scientists and journalists have raised serious questions about the origins of the disease, which still remain clouded in mystery. 2) His point here, as he answered the question, is that our government is capable of such things. He cites clearly proven historical incidents, like the Tuskegee experiment, to illustrate this point. Again, part of mainstream Christian theology's critique of empire is that governments are powers and principalities that come under the control of sin (Walter Wink calls it the "Domination System") and stand in need of redemption. 3) Liberation theology has emphasized that we must listen to the voices of the oppressed -- that they have things to tell the rest of us that we do not always see. We may not agree, but it is important to listen.

Finally, to address Matthew's point about healing the country. The three theological themes Wright discusses in his presentation are liberation, transformation, and reconciliation. His ministry and theology are aimed toward reconciliation (one reason I was saddened by the Q & A performance that suggested otherwise to many). The point he makes, and has been made always by Christian teaching, is that reconciliation comes after confession. There cannot be healing without a lot of listening to each other's stories, including things that are difficult to hear, and confession of the ways we have all participated in structures of sin.

Crafting this Week's Sermon

Yesterday I had a very productive day, completing a draft of my sermon, the bulletin, and the weekly newsletter all in one day. That simply never has happened before.

The text is the Ascension story told in the first chapter of Acts. I am now around to preaching a second time through the lectionary at CoH, so it is a text I've preached on before. I didn't even look at the old sermon, because I knew I was going to do something different with it.

A week or so ago I had read a congregational development book, In Dying We Are Born, which talked about how congregations needed to be prepared to die (or undergo change) in order to experience resurrection. The themes of this book were in mind as I did my sermon prep.

I read Lectionary Homiletics and other lectionary aides, discovering a passage in Sojourners that I really liked, which became the introduction.

In the congregational development book, there had been a quote from a poem entitled They Have Threatened Us with Resurrection by Julia Esquivel. I looked that poem up and really liked it. It became a reading in the service and themes from that (and one commentary on it I found) helped shape the themes of the sermon.

I was also looking for a good story to use, so I did what I often do, and stood before my bookcases looking for something to pop out. I was looking for a story that would convey the power of the resurrection to transform our lives. Three novels jumped out at me -- Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, and C. S. Lewis' The Last Battle. I ended up using a quote from Hurston on the bulletin cover and decided to use Graham Greene's story in the sermon.

I tied it all together with a Harry Wooten-ism. And there you have another example of how I find my sermon illustrations. You'll have to wait till after Sunday to see the sermon itself.

Back to Clinton, Again

I'm finally disenchanted again, so a typical presidential election.

For weeks I have not written much here on Obama as I have waited to see how this Jeremiah Wright episode played out. Unlike many people, as a minister I have a very different perspective (though it is shared with many ministers -- witness the SIX pieces on this story in the last Christian Century).

I have been upset at Obama not because of things said by Rev. Wright but because of Obama's distancing himself from Rev. Wright. When the story first broke, I wrote the Obama campaign to indicate my disappointment.

Today was the final straw.

I will vote for the Democratic candidate, whoever is nominated. But it will not be with passion.

Today Obama removed for me the one thing I really hoped was different about him. Now I know that just like Sen. Clinton, he will do anything to become president. He will not be a transformative political figure as I had hoped. If they are the same in that regard and we are only to have more of the same that we are used to, then I'd rather have her experience.

At least that's how I feel right now.

New Photos

I posted some new photos in the April 2008 Trips photo album. This weekend we were back in Dallas for the ordination of Linda Cross. Most of the pictures are from the Dallas Arboretum.

Crafting a Sermon: Illustrations

Kevin, et al, there is no one answer to your question. Illustrations come from all sorts of sources -- movies, reading, life experience, stories told by congregants. I think part of the challenge of being a preacher and remaining interesting is that you have to be living (doing things) and you have to be well read, and not just in theology and biblical studies, but in a wide range of topics. You don't have to know everything; ministers have their own interests and there illustrations are most likely going to come from those.

My sermon two weeks ago serves as an example.

The text was the story of Stephen -- his election and death. As I took my morning walk that Tuesday, I came up with a pretty good idea for the sermon. I was going to retell the story, adding some dramatization. It is an effective preaching style I've used before.

Later that morning I decided to do a little research just to see if I was led differently than my first inclination, and I was. I sat down to work on a draft and one though led to seeing if any Dr. Seuss would work. I wish I could remember now the train of thought, but I cannot. So, I spent about an hour looking through Dr. Seuss and trying some things out and had started on a draft. While working on that draft, which was focusing on the importance of story in shaping identity, I decided to look and see if there was anything in to use, knowing that Gordon has so many great stories on being church.

Well, after a while of looking through that book, I came up with yet a third way to construct the sermon around two of the stories/essays in Gordon's book.

I then took a break to think through which of the three possible approaches to the text I should go with.

When I sat back down to the sermon later, I went with the third approach, though a little bit of the Dr. Seuss worked its way in.

While working on that draft I, at one point, has a section on the story from Into the Wild, though I ended up cutting it.

This is one reason sermon craft can take so much time. There were hours spent following trails of thought that didn't end up in the sermon and no one could readily see/hear, though even those incomplete trails were helpful in my coming to grasp the text for that Sunday.

Imagination, Storytelling, & Christian Worship

Recently I had a friend quit attending our church. Among the handful of reasons he cited was one related to my preaching. He said that he was turned off by my use of Harry Potter as a sermon illustration.

Here's the response I sent:

So, twice now you've made reference to my use of Harry Potter in my sermons. I count maybe a half dozen usages in almost 150 sermons preached at CoH. And taken in context with all my other references to stories from history, great literature, pop culture, is not excessive.

In fact it would be based on four influences to my thinking and preaching.

1) Storytelling sermons -- a preaching style advocated by Fred Craddock, one of the leading influences in the last 30 years on how to preach. He advocates the use of stories as opposed to other types of preaching, because the listener is more likely to resonate with a story.

2) Post-evangelical movement -- The post-evangelicals, primarily the group called the Emergent Movement, have advocated the use of popular culture as the means of creating a bridge to the ancient practices and stories of the church. Their movement has had significant influence on churches outside their movement and how the preach, teach, and worship. This movement has had incredible success and getting younger people involved in churches. Unlike the contemporary praise and worship movement aimed at our parents generation, this movement has sought to restore a strong understanding of Christian discipleship and so is not interested in creating an accomodating package.

3) Catholic theology of culture and art -- Protestants and the Free Church largely rejected using culture and art to express and reflect on theological truth. It was the Catholic Church that always had a robust appreciation for and use of culture and art as elements of worship and theology. Protestantism and the Free Church have come around on this issue. The basic premise is that if the church is truly catholic, or universal, then all things express Christian truth to some degree and can be reconciled. So, I quote John Milton, tell a story about the Battle of Boston during the Revolutionary War, or make a reference to Harry Potter, because it is my Catholic-influenced belief that God is in all these things. (BTW, I preached an entire sermon series, "The Power and the Glory," on this issue in the spring of 2006).

4) Narrative ethics -- In the last half century or so there has a been a return to understanding ethics as less about individual action and decision-making and more about virtues of character. Virtue thinking then rests in narrative communities, because only in communities that repeatedly tell their own story, does one learn the habits that lead to the virtues. Understanding the power of story in teaching us how to live, has been maybe the most influential aspect on how I do ministry and think about Christian theology. When I was new in ministry, I read Mitzi Minor's The Power of Mark's Story (the source of my sermon series on Mark during Epiphany & Lent in 2006) which deeply affected me. It is a commentary on Mark, but it uses other great stories to make it's points, including Native American folk tales, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and even repeated use of The Lord of the Rings.

I was also friends with a whole group of ministers who were doing ministry in this way. For example, my pastor at Royal Lane preached an entire sermon contrasting the endings of the Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia (and he's 72). Or my colleague Kyle Childress who once preached an entire series of Lenten sermons on Dante's Inferno. Or my good friend Tim Youmans who is as likely to sing a U2 song as part of worship as he is an Isaac Watts hymn.

No one illustration will speak to everyone. That's why one must use a variety of illustrations. Last Sunday, for instance, my illustrations came from the blog, from a Dr. Suess book, and from a Steve Earle song lyric.

Nor is the point comprehension. The point is to awaken the imagination, and in the process of awakening the imagination, to enter the realm of mystery, awe, and wonder that is the realm of the sacred. I believe that imagination is the most important practice for engaging in Christian worship.

A Look at Religious Liberty

If you’ve read the full speech delivered by Rep. Sally Kern, which originally created the recent uproar, then you know that her overall main point was about the relationship between religion and the state. She is threatened by the pluralism of America and bemoans the loss of what she calls the “preferential treatment to Christianity.” In fact, I think the entire speech is scarier than the statement about gays being worse than terrorists. Why? Because it represents a frightening movement in American politics to end our centuries long tradition of religious liberty and equality.

Fortuitously, philosopher Martha Nussbaum just released a book entitled Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America’s Tradition of Religious Equality. Nussbaum recounts America’s legal history of protecting religious pluralism (and the times when fear overwhelmed tolerance and we persecuted a religious minority) while discussing all the contentious church and state issues in contemporary life.

Nussbaum claims that there are six principles which have arisen from America’s long, and often complex, struggle with religious liberty: . . . [Read the rest of my column here]

Weekend o' Birthdays

Friday was my Mom's birthday. It was one that ended with a zero, so we had a big birthday party for her on Saturday. For months we were talking about the party and making plans. Kelli, Shawn, Michael, and I all worked on parts of it. Michael and I had it at our house, so we spent the two days before getting ready for it. It was exhausting fun.

After all of Mom's guest left, we took a very short nap and then went to Remington Park for Michael's sister Regina's 18th birthday party. She had rented a room there and we had to help set up. One of the employees was rude to her about some changes she wanted to make to the room. Well, you don't do that with brothers like Michael and Robert. They had a talk with the guy and set him straight.

About 9:30 we left Remington Park to go to The Park for our friend Nate's birthday.

We went home early and passed out.

Bearing Witness

Bearing Witness

Acts 6-7

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

20 April 2008



Gordon Atkinson is the writer of the popular blog In the early days of blogging Gordon, who was anonymous at the time, became popular because here was a cool preacher who was willing to talk honestly and authentically about faith, spirituality, and the church. RealLivePreacher struggled with faith, used humour, and occasionally dropped a cuss word or two. People tired of the often moribund and stodgy churches they grew up with, churches that didn't invite question, innovation, or struggle, were attracted to Gordon's blog and what he described of the kooky little Baptist church he pastors in San Antonio. In one essay, he took on the question of "How to find a church":

































It seems that today many people are looking for a great church. Americans remain deeply religious, but aren't necessarily gung ho about the faith they grew up with. They seem to be looking for the cool church, which means, of course, a church that fits their individualized notion of what it means to be cool. And that does vary. When some of my friends passionately describe what it is about their church that excites them most, I'm sometimes really turned off, or even scared.

What makes for a vital church?

The Book of Acts might just have our answer. Acts is more than a history book. In fact, it really isn't a history book at all. It's a story book, but a story book with a purpose. Kind of like Dr. Seuss. When Theodore Geisel writes,


    Oh, the THINKS

    you can think up

    if only you try!


    If you try,

    you can think up

    a GUFF going by.


we get that Dr. Seuss is awakening our imaginations and teaching us a few things along the way.

Acts is like that too. It's not so much a book about the early church as it is a book that gives shape to what it means to be the church in every age. Its purpose is to awaken our imaginations and get us thinking about what it means to be the Church.

And this story about Stephen is filled with practical pointers on how to be the church. Here are just a few:

  • Don't get worried when some issue arises in the church, because there were issues even for the people who knew Jesus, personally.
  • You need lots of leaders, both clergy and laity, because this church has twelve pastors and still the congregants were complaining that not everything was getting done.
  • Pastors have to set boundaries so they don't get overworked or distracted from their primary calling.
  • The small things are important. Not only do you need people preaching, teaching, and praying, someone does have to oversee the kitchen.
  • You've got to call the whole community together to address the life of the community. Sometimes the decisions have to be made by everyone.
  • Prayer is essential to the life of the church. In fact, it seems to have priority over everything else.
  • Committees existed from the beginning of the church.
  • When a group feels out of the loop, you appoint leaders from that group to fix the problem. Another way to put that is, if someone complains about something, put them in charge.
  • Leadership arises from the people in order to meet the changing needs of the church.
  • Diversity is one of the most important virtues of the Jesus movement.
  • Rituals that bless folk in a new ministry are important.
  • Sometimes, like with Stephen, when you give someone a new position, they become empowered.
  • The church's vision must be centered on the Risen Christ.
  • A vital church will encounter passionate opposition.
  • Our whole lives bear witness to the God we proclaim.
  • The church cannot grow without leadership among the laity.


We could have a church vitality workshop and talk in-depth about each of those points and why they are important and how to put them into practice.

When we read this story for how we are to be the church, we are engaging in the very activity that Stephen himself engaged in. I encourage you to go home and read the rest of Stephen's story in chapters 6 and 7 of the Book of Acts. After Stephen begins performing signs and wonders, the religious authorities react by arresting him and dragging him before the council. When they question him, he tells them the biblical story from beginning to end, reinterpreting it in light of the new revelation in Christ. This is what angers them so much that, in violation of Roman law, they drag Stephen out of the city and stone him to death and then begin a violent crackdown on all the Christians.

What Stephen does is re-read the biblical story in light of what God has just revealed. In other words, Stephen believed that God is still speaking. The still speaking God allows Stephen to read his own story as part of the larger biblical story and the larger biblical story as his story.

This is what we do. Our identity is discovered in reading the biblical and the Christian story as our own.

The most important point that this story makes for our own lives is that our faith is something for which we are willing to die.

Many people are in search of meaning and adventure. This is particularly true of young people. That seems to have been part of the case for John Walker Lindh, the young California man caught by U. S. soldiers fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Steve Earle captured this idea in his song, "John Walker's Blues,"


I'm just an American boy – raised on MTV

And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads

But none of 'em look like me

So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim

And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word

Of Mohammed, peace be upon him.


    Note that not everyone attracted to the Muslim faith becomes a terrorist, just as most Christian converts do not become Fred Phelps.

    Mainstream Christian churches in America have done a relatively poor job of presenting Christianity as a meaningful adventure. The vitality of the early church resulted from a passion so deep and strong that they were willing to die.

    That doesn't mean that we are called to martyrdom. It still happens occasionally, but it's not a requirement of Christian discipleship. When it does happen, martyrdom is not death that inflicts death and suffering on someone else, but is the result of speaking truth to power – the example of Christian martyrdom isn't going off on some Crusade, it's getting beaten to death in a civil rights march on the Edmund Pettis Bridge.

So, the story in Acts presents the martyrdom of Stephen. If Acts isn't telling history but is trying to awaken our imaginations and tell us something about what it means to be the church, then what can we learn about the church in this story of death? What, then, makes a vital church?

It is the passion, commitment, and courage of the martyr. According to Acts, people were drawn to the early church because they observed all these things. Too often our spirituality is comfortable. It is the challenge and discipline that brings adventure and meaning. To be filled with adventure and meaning, doesn't require that each of us has to be Stephen. That would be pretty intense anyway. Sometimes being filled with adventure and meaning requires being George. Here's one more story from Gordon Atkinson:








George died not long after.

May the stories of Stephen, George, and so many others awaken our imaginations to the meaning and adventure to be found in this quirky thing called the church.