Another Way Forward or: Why “Holy Conferencing” Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

On November 16th, 2016, Americans flocked to their assigned polling stations. The election cycle had been particularly brutal with the partisanship at its zenith. And while countless citizens waited for the election results to come in, a handful of people gathered for worship at Duke Divinity School to hear Stanley Hauerwas preach.

It’s a good sermon, you can read it in his recent book Minding The Web, but there’s one part that has really stuck with me over the last few years:

“I need not tell you this is the day Americans elect their president and a host of other offices. We will be told this is the day the people rule. That sounds like a good idea, but you need to remember that there was a democratic moment in the Gospels, and the people asked for Barabbas. Voting is often said to be the institution that makes democracies democratic. I think, however, that is a deep mistake. It is often over-looked, but there is a coercive aspect to all elections. After an election, 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do.”

Annual Conference is often experienced as the most determinative week in the life of United Methodism. Sure, we have a General Conference every four years that establishes the global budget and a handful of other truly important matters. But every year, every Annual Conference meets to discern the future of the local church as it pertains to missional strategies, ordination, and conference structures. And we worship occasionally, but that certainly feels like an afterthought most of the time.

And within the regular movements and machinations of Annual Conference there is an element of conferencing that is so engrained into who we are that we no longer question its’ subversiveness – Robert’s Rules of Order, and specifically voting in general.

I don’t know the exact date of when the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations sold their souls to the organization of Robert, but I do know for sure that it has nothing to do with the gospel.

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Take Hauerwas’ point: The only democratic moment in the Gospels is when the people choose Barabbas instead of Jesus. They thought they knew what they were doing and they nailed the Lord to the cross. There are, of course, other moments of important decision in the New Testament, but they don’t happen through a pre-arranged structure, or through secret ballots, and certainly not through electronic devices. 

There isn’t even campaigning for particular people or ideologies.

When the apostles needed to choose a new disciple to replace Judas they did so with the casting of lots.

When the apostles encounter the Spirit’s movement among the Gentiles they simply went along with the flow rather than creating subcommittees to study a new way forward for the Good News.

But that’s not how we handle things in the United Methodist Church. 

For years I’ve entertained the thought of approaching one of the open microphones to make a motion (under the guidelines of Robert) to amend our general rules and practices so that EVERY vote would be done with the casting of lots. I’m sure that it would be debated, and ultimately struck down, but the craziest thing is it would have the potential of being more faithful than whatever it is we are already doing.

Instead of listening for and discerning the movement of the Spirit, we “take matters into our own hands” by exhibiting our democratic rights. Which means, to put it another way, that the UMC has adopted a secular means of deliberation that mirrors corporate America more than the living Word of the Lord.

Rev. Dr. Dennis Perry, who is retiring at this year’s Virginia Annual Conference says: “We have conflated effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process. If asked, most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”

During this Annual Conference cycle there has been a lot of behind the scenes politicking in order to establish slates of candidates to be voted upon for the 2020 General Conference. Different camps/tribes are hoping to either overturn or strengthen the Traditional Plan from GC 2019 that created stiffer penalties for clergy who preside over same-sex weddings and Bishops/Conferences that ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Those who lean to the right have their slate of candidates and those who lean to the left have their own slate of candidates. But on both sides, two of the primary factors for consideration have been electability and knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.

So here’s my question: What does it say about the United Methodist Church that when discerning the future of God’s church we want to elect individuals who have name-recognition and who are aware of a parliamentary process that has nothing to do with the Bible?

Robert’s Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing and neither is sitting down for an election. They might keep us attentive to the matters at hand, but they also leave us more polarized than we were when we started. 

So, here’s another way forward in light of GC 2019 and our continued Annual Conferencing – 

Get rid of Robert’s Rules of Order. Throw it away and never look back. Will Annual Conference become chaotic and difficult to keep under control? Of course, but that’s what the Holy Spirit does best. Do you think the disciples waited for someone to make a motion to accept the Holy Spirit before it was poured out on Pentecost?

And while we’re at it, let’s get rid of voting altogether. We can either work through consensus building, or cast lots like they did during the time of Jesus. Will it be difficult, and will we feel like its’ unfair? Of course, but God’s grace is entirely unfair – it’s for everyone.

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper organization is the key to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do or what we control – instead, it’s about what God did and does and whether or not we have the eyes, ears, and minds to perceive it.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that has more to do with Sears than it does to the kingdom of God.

Here on the other side of GC 2019, our conferencing is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To continually give ourselves over to Robert and his rules is to admit how drunk we are with manifesting our own destiny. 

My fear is that we are so entrenched in our ways, that we are no longer listening to The Way. 

If we’re honest, none of our committees would elect Jesus to do much of anything. He is far too radical, too perverse, and he associates himself with all the wrong people. He wouldn’t sit around for all of the parliamentary procedures before marching out to do his own thing.

I just hope that we would have the presence of mind to follow Him, rather than trying to show Him where to go. 

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Strangers in the Sanctuary

Last Sunday I announced to my church that I am being appointed to a new congregation at the end of June. I am truly grateful for the time I’ve had at St. John’s and recently I’ve been thinking about the many ways they’ve let me experiment what it means to preach from the pulpit.

Back in 1992, Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon published a book entitled Preaching to Strangers. The book includes a number of sermons preached by Willimon at Duke Chapel with Hauerwas’ comments and critiques immediately following. And there is a line in the introduction that has stuck with me during my time at St. John’s:

“A congregation cannot be strangers to one another, not because they know one another well, but because they have all had the same baptism… [However] most preaching in the Christian church today is done before strangers.” [Willimon and Hauerwas. Preaching to Strangers (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991) 6.]

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How is it possible that we can have churches filled with strangers? Perhaps our worship prevents us from seeing the pews as avenues of connection and instead we see them as walls of division. Maybe we spend so much time facing forward that we forget to look left and right. Or perhaps we’ve let our faith become solely about our relationship with God and not about our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Regardless of the reason, I noticed from the beginning of my ministry that there were strangers in the sanctuary.

We did such a good job of welcoming and connecting with one another during the times immediately before and after worship, we even sat down and talked during fellowship events, but we didn’t really know one another.

And I didn’t do anything about it.

Instead, for the first 2 years, I got up in the pulpit every week and preached my sermon. I shook hands with everyone on their way out the door and started the process all over again. And again and again I would have people come up to ask me questions about the family that had just walked out the door, or someone wanted to know the name of the man who sat on the left side in the third pew from the back, or people would ask how long some particular individual had been sitting in that particular spot without knowing their name. But still, I did nothing.

I waited and waited until something happened back in 2015 that forced me to try something new, strange, and bizarre.

One day our secretary discovered a man standing in our parking lot in the middle of the afternoon and approached to ask if there was anything she could help with. Without intending to, the man immediately began to cry and said, “I lost my wife a few months ago and today would have been our 49th wedding anniversary. 49 years ago we were standing in this church with hope for the future… These last few months have been the loneliest in my life.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of being part of a church where we did not know about a man’s 49th wedding anniversary. I didn’t want the sanctuary to be a place of loneliness of Sunday mornings. So I tried something different.

Instead of the typical ~15 minute sermon, I broke the church up into 6 groups during worship (each bulletin contained a number between 1-6) and sent them to different rooms throughout the building. I assigned group leaders with instructions (printed below) and provided a list of questions (also below) to help get the conversation flowing.

When I announced what we were doing from the pulpit that morning there were audible groans from the congregation. “Here he goes again,” they must’ve thought. And, begrudgingly, they filed off to their different rooms in silence.

But when the activity was over and they came back to the sanctuary, I couldn’t get them to stop talking!

In the years that followed that weird Sunday I’ve been blessed to see new friendships between individuals and families that had their genesis in those classroom conversations: A group of widows who were previously unaware of one another have lunch together once a month; a new family to the community connected with a long-time Stauntonian family and now regularly spend time together; people formerly divided by age are now connected over common interests like movies, restaurants, and even time travel destinations.

 

Sometimes it’s worth taking a risk from the pulpit, and not just in a daring or controversial sermon. Sometimes it’s good to get out of the way and let the Spirit do what the Spirit wants. Sometimes church can be the place where we combat the terrible forces of loneliness.

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Living in Harmony Activity

Directions for Group Leaders:

Thank you for agreeing to help facilitate conversations during worship. Below you will find step-by-step instructions to guide each group through their time together. In light of your willingness to help lead I will share with you the reason for our activity, but I ask that you do not share it with your group: Many of us attend church on a regular basis, we see the same familiar faces, and yet we don’t have an intimate knowledge about those we call our brothers and sisters in Christ. Each group will be asking and answering questions in order to learn more about our community. My hope is that we will begin to know more about one another than just where everyone sits in the sanctuary. The quality of the answers should be emphasized over quantity. I would rather you only get to one of the questions and really learn about each other than getting to answer all of them without really soaking up the answers.

 

  1. Reread the following scripture to set up the activity:
    1. Romans 12.9-18
    2. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
  2. Ask everyone to share his or her name.
  3. Say: “For the next 15-20 minutes we will be speaking casually with one another about our interests. This is not going to be a densely theological conversation about “the last time you experienced God’s presence” or “sharing moments of great sinfulness from your lives.” Instead it will be focused on what makes you, you. By no means is this mandatory, and if there is a question that you do not want to answer, all you have to say is “pass” and let it move on to the next person. However, if you can answer the questions, it will allow for greater growth and fruitfulness in our church and in our community.
  4. Below is a list of questions to ask the group. You may read one aloud and then ask everyone to respond in a circle, or at random (the choice is yours). I have written more questions than you will probably be able to answer in the time allowed but that’s okay. I trust you to know what questions are working and which ones need to be left behind. Emphasis should be placed on giving everyone ample time to respond so that everyone will learn a little bit about everyone else. If a natural conversation begins in response to an answer please allow it to continue so long as it fits with the general nature of the activity. However, if someone becomes long-winded please ask him or her to conclude so that we can move on to the next person.
  5. Questions:
    1. What was the last good movie you saw (on TV or in the Theaters) and why?
    2. What is your “go-to” restaurant in Staunton, and what do you usually order?
    3. What is one of your most memorable birthday presents? How did you feel when you opened it?
    4. If you could have one super-power what would it be, and why?
    5. If you could recommend one book for all of your friends to read, what book would it be and why?
    6. When was the last time you felt pure joy and what were the circumstances behind it?
    7. When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
    8. What is your favorite thing to do in the summer and why?
    9. If they made a movie of your life, which actor would you want to play you?
    10. If you could have an endless supply of any food, what would you get?
    11. Who is your hero (a parent, celebrity, writer, etc.) and why?
    12. What is one thing that you are extremely proud of?
    13. If you had a time machine, where and when would you travel?
    14. If you could have a conversation with one person from the entire history of the world, who would it be and why?
    15. If you had an entire vacation paid for, where would you go and why?
    16. What do you think is the greatest invention from your lifetime and why?
  6. Wrapping Up
    1. At 11:50 we need everyone back in the sanctuary. When your group comes to a time that naturally allows for a conclusion I ask that you pray the following words out loud, and then lead your group back to the sanctuary:
      1. Prayer: “Almighty God, you know us and have called us by name. In the midst of this community, we give you thanks for everyone in this group. We praise you for providing interests, opinions, and observations. We pray, Lord, that you might instill in each of us the beauty of community. Give us the strength to live in harmony with one another, and allow us to be people who can extend hospitality toward strangers. Amen.

In Defense Of The Revised Common Lectionary

Crackers & Grape Juice is an interview-driven theological podcast about faith without using stained glass language. My friends Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Morgan Guyton started the podcast over a year ago in order to remain connected to one another while also continuing to explore theology. Near the beginning, I was asked to help with editing specific episodes and quickly became part of the team. Since the inception, Crackers & Grape Juice’s audience has grown tremendously thanks, in part, to interviewees such as David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Rob Bell, and others. We are committed to producing and providing faithful content with faithful theologians, but we have also added a new podcast to the mix.

Strangely Warmed is a new lectionary-based podcast designed to address the weekly church reading without using stained glass language. The Revised Common Lectionary is a wonderful resource for churches and one that has come to shape the Christian experience over the last few decades. The RCL is a three-year cycle of four readings for each Sunday and special days throughout the liturgical year. There is always a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel (with a few exceptions). At the heart of the RCL is a desire to bring churches through the great narrative of scripture without being limited by the subjectivity of the preacher.

However, the Lectionary is something unknown in many churches even if the preacher follows it weekly. Therefore, I have created the following Top Ten List in defense of the Revised Common lectionary for pastors and lay people who are interested in following and subscribing to Strangely Warmed. (You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spreaker)

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  1. Our Time is NOT God’s Time
    1. Christians, whether they know it or not, follow a different year than the calendar year. We might write February 28th on our checks and important documents, but for us the day is actually defined by being part of the season of Epiphany (until Ash Wednesday when we enter the season of Lent). To follow Jesus Christ implies a willingness to have our expectations (taught to us by the world) uprooted and flipped by the living God. The RCL helps guide us through the Christian year in such a way that our identity first rests with our discipleship, and then everything else secondarily. Moreover, following something like the RCL is a reminder that our time is not the same thing as God’s time. We might feel wearied by the weight of the most recent political development or social event, but the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people transcend time; they are in fact timeless. There is a great comfort that comes when diving into the strange new world of the bible through the RCL because it provides a sense of perspective that Christians regularly need.
  2. Habits/Discipline
    1. As Stanley Hauerwas has said on a number of occasions: What we believe shapes how we behave. Following the RCL informs our beliefs and necessarily shapes our behaviors, choices, and actions. The lectionary is a habit and requires discipline for both pastors and lay people. I will be the first to admit that there are plenlty of stories in the Bible that I would rather not preach, and when a particular event occurs I often know which story from the Bible would be effective to use from the pulpit in which to address the event. However, only picking and choosing the stories that we are familiar with, or the stories we are comfortable with, furthers the sinful idea that we can fit God into a box. Psalm 23 is a beautiful text and brings comfort to many people, but it cannot be the only thing that we Christians proclaim on a weekly basis. We need the Psalm 22s just as much as the Psalm 23s and the RCL provides that disciplined exposure to the canonical narrative of God’s grace.
  3. Limited Imagination
    1. Similarly, following the RCL, whether in preaching or in a bible study, forces us to proclaim scripture we would otherwise ignore. God can, and does, speak through scripture, even if we can’t imagine how upon first glance. And when we limit the passages on Sunday mornings to, say, the Gospels, we are limiting God’s Word being proclaimed in worship. There are definitely weird and strange passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but committing to them (rather than ignoring them) challenges us to have scripturally shaped imaginations. At the heart of the RCL is a commitment to be under the obligation of the text to say what God wants said for God’s church rather than what the preacher want to say about God to God’s church.
  4. Biblical Literacy
    1. We don’t know our bibles like we once did. Period. I could go on and on about the many times I’ve encountered someone who has gone to church for most of his/her life only to not know about the story of the bible. For instance: I was recently asked if Moses was in the New Testament, another person had no idea who Isaiah was, and another shared her utter shock that when we have communion we are living into the last time Jesus gathered with the disciples. All of those interactions came from people who have been going to church longer than I’ve been alive! Now I’m not say that we need to memorize the entirety of scripture, or get lost in the weeds, but the RCL is a tool to help us reclaim our biblical literacy.
  5. The catholic (universal) church
    1. Preaching and reading from the RCL connects us with the church universal. There is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that two churches, from completely different denominations, can read the same scripture on the same Sunday morning. Personally, this connection with the catholic church has been made manifest in a Lectionary Bible Study I participate in at the church I serve where more than half of the people in attendance attend other churches on Sunday morning. Yet, the same scriptures we read during the week are the ones they encounter on Sunday morning. In a time when there seem to be almost more denomination than there are Christians, the RCL connects us to the united church that Christ prayed for in John 17.
  6. Scripture Interprets Scripture
    1. The bible is cyclical, and you can miss this if you read it in isolation or with the strange collaboration of something like the RCL. For instance, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop is a powerful one in and of itself, but it takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Both were born into situations where their lives were in peril, both heard the voice of the Lord in pivotal moments before their ministries began, both proclaimed the law from a mountain, and both had their faces shine in the light of God’s presence. Scripture helps interpret scripture, and the RCL does a pretty good job at pairing readings from throughout the bible that connect with one another.
  7. Christological Focus
    1. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we read scripture. We Christians have the benefit of knowing the “end of the story” when we are reading passages from the Old Testament and we should remember Christ’s role throughout the canon. However, we don’t simply read the New Testament into the Old; we also need to read the Old into the New. The New Testament is filled with scriptural references to the Old Testament that fall flat when we, as preachers and readers, do not draw the connections between the two. And Christ is the glue that holds both Testaments together. The RCL implores those who adhere to it to see the connections between all four readings and how Christ is the means by which they relate to one another.
  8. Inexhaustibility of Scripture
    1. God always has something to say. Now that I’m in my fourth year of ministry, I am making my way through Year A of the RCL for the second time and I am blown away by how much the same scripture I preached on just a few years ago still have so much to say. The way I read John 1 my first year in ministry has changed dramatically and has therefore transformed the way I preach that passage. Similarly, I have been in bible studies and read enough theology over the last few years that I will never look at certain passages the same way again. The RCL allows we preachers to reflect on how we looked at, and preached, a text in the recent past and how we can use in again in the present.
  9. Room for the Spirit
    1. As previously mentioned, there are some difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Passages about the wrath of God or the judgment of God are not easily preached or taught in church. However, using the RCL compels the preacher to rely on the Spirit’s guidance when handling a difficult passage which is something that should be done for every sermon regardless of difficulty. When I was first appointed to St. John’s and was planning worship for the coming months, I made a habit of reading all for lectionary texts for each Sunday and the one I wanted to preach on the least was the one that I picked for the particular Sunday. This simple practice forced me to rely on praying for the Spirit to guide me and for God’s will to be done in a way that made my preaching better, more faithful, and more fruitful.
  10. Being Shaped by the Word
    1. In our current cultural clime (the Reign of Trump), the lectionary helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than reading into scripture what we want to say, the RCL allows us to proclaim what God wants to say. If we are willing to stand under the text (rather than above it) then we can let the text narrate our lives and we can be faithful. For example: On election day, the gospel lection was about Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in three days. Stanley Hauerwas was tasked with preaching that week at Duke Divinity School, and he preached about how Jesus just didn’t get it; you don’t tell the Jews the Temple is going to be destroyed in three days if you’re running for office. He then went on to address how the assumption that elections are the means by which just societies are established is an illusion; in the New Testament we learn about how democracies work in the one moment where there is an example of a democratic election… the crowd chose Barabbas. Hauerwas easily could have picked any number of passages from the Bible to preach during Election Day, but he was held accountable to the lectionary, which told him what to preach rather than the other way around. Following the RCL, whether in preaching or in teaching, grants us the freedom to be shaped by the Word.

 

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Babbling Grace – Karl Barth and Genesis 11.1-9

Professors in seminary can make all the difference. Some can call you into the strange new world of the bible through their passionate lectures and you will never be able to look at scripture the same way again. Some can refers to moments of history in the church that decisively reshape the way you understand the church today. And still yet others can turn your entire understanding of the kingdom of God upside down through just a few lines in one lecture.

Stanley Hauerwas is one of those professors.

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In 2013, I had the good fortune of participating in his last ethics class before he retired. In it, he did his best to make us Christians more Christian. By highlighting problems that the church is facing, and has faced for a long time, he helped to provide a better grammar for what it means to be a Christian in the world.

During one of his lectures on the remarkable importance of the gathering community, he briefly mentioned a sermon he once wrote on the story of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11. At the time, the story of Babel was one that I remembered from my youth; the pictures we drew of people attempting to build a tower to God, the lesson it conveys about why there are so many languages on the earth. But I honestly hadn’t thought about it having much to do with my life as a Christian.

Dr. Hauerwas said, “The divisions at Babel are healed and reconciled at Pentecost. The language divisions were still present, but within the gathered communal identity of the church was a common Lord in Jesus Christ. Pentecost was a new day of creation, not unlike those we read about at the beginning of Genesis.”

In just a few sentences, Hauerwas jumped from Genesis 11 to Acts 2 and it blew my mind. Now it seems so obvious, that the Lord would bring together God’s people through the power of the Holy Spirit therefore redeeming what had happened at Babel. But when Hauerwas connected them in that lecture, it was like I was given a new lens by which I could read scripture.

For a time I attributed this new way of thinking and reading to Dr. Hauerwas, and it was only later that I realized he got it from Karl Barth.

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In Church Dogmatics III.4 Karl Barth uses the story of the Tower of Babel to evaluate the problem of nationhood in the modern period. For Barth, Babel contains every bit of the human desire to remain self-reliant and focused on pride, which has resulted in our divisions as a species. It is a story, not unlike Adam and Eve’s first sin, that reminds us of the brokenness in our world.

I have always seen Babel as a kind of means by which we can teach a lesson to children or young Christians about the dangers of pride. I have seen Babel as a shadow of what the church is supposed to be. But for Barth, Genesis 11 is all about grace.

Barth is quick to note that, “A Christian people is one in which heathenism and national egoism are broken, judged, and purified by the Spirit of Christ… As we are warned in Genesis 11, rebellion against God leads to the forceful disintegration rather than the organic development of national identities.”[1] Babel should frighten us, as a people, about what happens when we rebel against the Lord to such a degree, but the story is about much more than the Lord’s “punishment” at the end.

The Tower of Babel, for Barth, contains elements of both divine wrath and divine blessing. The story begins with: “Now the whole earth had one language and the same words” (Gen. 11.1). As a unified people, they settled into the land of Shinar and decided to use bricks to make themselves a city and a tower, “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11.2-4). In response to this, the Lord goes down to examine the city and tower and eventually confuses humanity’s language to remind them of the divide between Creator and creature.

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Barth immediate questions the supposed sin within the story: What is inherently wrong with building a city or a tower? The constructions of such objects were not completed against God; attempts at civilization are never formally wrong.[2] For Barth, the thing itself, the object built, is not the fault but rather when a people want to create something for themselves in order to reach an attempted equality with God there lays the sin. The depth of humanity’s sin is the “arrogance of thinking that man himself can and must take himself as he takes the brick and mortar, and make himself the lord of his history, constituting the work of providence of his own work.”[3]

In light of humanity’s over-determined arrogance, God must respond with punishment. If God let humanity build the tower to completion, just as if God had let Adam and Eve stay in the Garden after eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, humanity would further perpetuate itself as a sinful people. The scattering of the nations at the end of the story is an example of God’s divine wrath, and usually where I would let the story finish, but for Barth (and Hauerwas) we cannot understand Babel without the rest of the Bible.

Barth sees grace at Babel through, of all things, Jesus’ parable of the sower: “The constant sowing of the seed of the divine Word will always find soil even if there is no true harvest in one place. Even in this passage we must not fail to see the Gospel in this sense. Even in the terrible decree of v. 7 (“Come let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”) we must not miss His grace.”[4]

Important for Barth’s understanding of God’s grace in his exegesis is the fact that God could have easily used an earthquake or another divine miracle to achieve God’s condemnation. But rather than destroying creation, as had been done through the flood in Genesis 7, God merely divides humanity and confuses their language. Instead of raining destruction upon humanity, God limits the punishments to linguistics.

Additionally, God does not abandon humanity to their own devices even after their construction. Regardless of the self-righteousness employed by humanity, God will remain faithful even when we are not. Babel could have been the end of the relationship between the Creator and the creature, but God remained steadfast.

Morever, Barth’s final move regarding the babbling grace of Genesis 11 comes in the recognition that, as Christians, we are aware that God has more in store for his creatures than the end of the story in Genesis; we know what happens at Pentecost. What transpires at the end of the Babel narrative is not the ultimate decree on the matter but rather, “only a penultimate word, and that the curves of the separated ways are so ordered in advance that they will finally come together again.”[5] Here is where Barth shines the light of God’s glory the brightest: even though the main emphasis of the Tower of Babel in on how the separation and division of people was right (at the time), God’s original desire is for humanity to be in unity.

For Barth, we cannot read Genesis 11 outside of, or in spite of, Acts 2. These two different stories, separated by thousands of years, though different in form and content, contain the beginning and the next step of God’s action toward creation. God intended for humanity to remain in unity, and through our own self-righteousness were have rejected the divine unity for our own division. And yet, according to Barth, we are to remain grateful to God’s out-pouring of grace which simultaneously remaining discontent until there is a total reunification of God’s creation.

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Barth, time and time again throughout Church Dogmatics, refuses to read particular texts as isolated witnesses. To read the bible is to read it canonically. Narratives from different places help to inform one another and the Old Testament reads into the New just as much as the New reads into the Old. Babel and Pentecost are connected. Eden and Revelation are connected. David and Jesus are connected. Exodus and Acts are connected. And so on.

As Christians reading scripture, we have the benefit of knowing how the story “ends.” We know that in the person of Jesus Christ the previously divided nations have come together. In the Holy Spirit of Acts 2 the conclusion of Genesis 11 takes place: “The miracle of Pentecost tells the us how the decision is take to look and break out from the nations to the one people of God, how the divine disposition of Genesis 11 is rightly understood as a teleological divine purpose, and how it is recognized in the form of the corresponding orientation from the near to the distant, the narrower sphere to the wider.”[6]

Barth’s reading of scripture, and in particular his exegetical work in the excurses of Church Dogmatics has directly influenced the work of Stanley Hauerwas and a whole mosaic of theologians over the last century. To be a Christian is to read, and to read well; to look for the connections from book to book; to identify the thread that God pulls through seemingly unrelated stories; to see ourselves as characters in God’s great narrative.

And for Barth, the story of Babel is not one for us to leave for children’s Sunday School rooms and flannel-graphs. It is one that we must read with conviction knowing full and well how the story ends. Just as with the construction of Babel, humanity still consistently places brick after brick of our own presumed infallibility in direct contradiction to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. Barth’s work reminds us that we have divided ourselves against God’s original and good intentions, and to complete the end of the story we must take seriously God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ, desiring for humanity to one day be made perfectly one.

 

[1] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics III.4. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 306.

[2] Ibid., 314.

[3] Ibid., 314.

[4] Ibid., 316.

[5] Ibid., 317.

[6] Ibid., 323.

The Top 10 Books I Read In 2015

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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Without a doubt, The Sellout is one of the most convicting novels I have ever read. Set in south Los Angeles County in an impoverished community with a farm, the story covers racism, comedy, subsistence farming, the Little Rascals, the (in)justice system, and a slew of other subjects. The main character, a black farmer raised by a controversial sociologist, attempts to reinstitute segregation in hopes of giving hope back to the black community. Favorite line: “It’s illegal to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater, right?” “It is.” “Well, I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.”

 

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

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McBride’s novel is a fictive retelling of John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. The narrative follows a young male black child who pretends to be a girl after meeting John Brown in order to avoid hard work and violence. The story is gripping to such a degree that I nearly read the entire thing in one sitting.

 

The Work of Theology by Stanley Hauerwas

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Hauerwas’ new collection of essays is the closest thing to listening to him lecture at Duke Divinity School. Collected in an all encompassing format, the essays show Hauerwas’ attempt to wrestle with important subjects from how he thinks he learned to think theologically, to how to write a theological sentence, to how to be theologically funny (though other essays are actually funnier than the one on being funny). It is quintessentially Hauerwas and worthy of anyone wanting to know what it means to be theological.

 

Hear The Wind Sing / Pinball 1970 by Haruki Murakami

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For years Murakami resisted the demands of publishers and fans for an English version of his debut novels. Written while he owned and operated a jazz bar in Tokyo, he claims that it took him two novels to figure out how to really write, and he describes A Wild Sheep Chase to be his first true novel. However, this year his first two stories were published in English together in one volume. It is clear that Murakami is learning his voice through these narratives, but as an avid fan of his work, is was a joy to see the beginnings of his imagination at play.

 

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

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Full disclosure: This was my third attempt to read David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece. The first two times I would get through 50-100 pages and just give up. It is a struggle. With footnotes that propel the story forward but also drive the reader crazy, you have to really work to get through this thing. But if you can, it’s worth it. It is impossible to describe Infinite Jest in a way that does the thing justice, and that’s kind of the point. It is at times comedic, tragic, political, geographical, historic, and absurdist. If you have the time and patience to make it through, it will change the way you look at literature.

Also: the all-too-brief section describing the game of Eschaton is incredible.

 

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman

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Graphic-novels were a new thing for me this year. I read through all the great Batman works by the likes of Frank Miller, Jeff Loeb, and Alan Moore, but the one graphic-novel that continues to stay in my mind is The Complete Maus. Written and drawn by the son of a holocaust survivor, Maus tells the story of a man’s survival and destruction. Spiegelman’s use of animals to portray human characters makes the story approachable while also making the subject matter completely jarring. Spiegelman’s graphic novel is one that demands to be read in order to remind us of how quickly prejudice can lead to violence.

 

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

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Larsen’s follow-up to the incredible debut novel of The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, is about a black child named Radar Radmanovic born to white parents. While at first the giant novel seems like at attempt to bridge racial tensions, it really avoids the subject altogether. Instead the narrative is about Radar’s father and the way that art can change the soul regardless of whether anyone is there to observe it. Additionally, Larsen’s use of fictive footnotes to books that do not exist draws the reader into a total world within, and outside of, the story.

 

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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Flanagan’s story is not for the faint of heart. There were times that I wanted stop reading because it was just too sad. The novel jumps time periods in Dorrigo Evan’s life from his childhood in Australia, to his love affair as a young soldier, to his work on the Burma Railway as a POW in 1943, to the effects of life after the war. Flanagan resists the temptation to stay with one narrator and shows both sides to every story within the novel, leaving the reader helpless to determine who was right or wrong, or whether we should even use those qualifiers to describe ourselves.

 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

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Doerr’s novel deserves all of the strong reviews and awards it received this year. Set before, during, and immediately after World War II it follows a young boy who winds up fighting for the Germans, and a young blind woman struggling to survive in France. As their individual stories eventually come together, the reader beholds a beautiful and haunting novel about what it really takes to “see” the other.

 

Life After Life / A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson

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I have collected the two novels as one because they really inform one another. The first portrays a young British woman living through World War II and the many ways that she dies. Every time she comes to the end of her life, whether from a disease or a bomb, the story starts over and the young woman makes minor changes to her life in order to avoid the previous outcome. It is unlike anything else I have read. The second novel follows the girl’s brother as an RAF pilot during the war and his attempts to find a normal life in post-war Europe. Atkinson’s characterization shows an author at the top of her game, and I can’t wait to see what else she puts out in the years to come.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

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Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

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The Arab of the Future: A Graphic Memoir

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The Talent Show – Sermon on Matthew 25.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

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I have an idea. We are going to start things off in the sermon a little differently this morning. Instead of sitting patiently and attentively while I spout off about theological ideas and anecdotes, we are going to do an activity…

In the parable of the talents, the master gives to the first slave five talents, the second slave two talents, and to the third slave he gives one talent. During the time of Christ, a talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a daily laborer; therefore this was a tremendous amount of money. So, here’s our activity: I want us to imagine that we are the modern equivalent of the master’s slaves, and we are going to discuss what we are going to do with the talents. If you’re sitting in the front third of the sanctuary I want you to imagine that the master has given you $50,000. In the middle third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $20,000. And the back third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $10,000. (If you remember anything from worship today, let it be this: It pays to sit near the front!) Anyway, I would like you to break up into groups of three or four and discuss what you would do with the money for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Begin.

Okay. The master would like to know what you are planning to do with his talents…

Of course, in the parable things work out a little differently. The master has decided to go on a great journey, and entrusts an incredible amount of money to three of his slaves. He provides them with five talents, two talents, and one talent, to each according to his ability. After the master leaves the five talent slave goes off and works hard with his talents and makes five more. Likewise the two talent slave goes off and works hard to earn two more talents. However the one talent slave went off and dug a hole in the ground to hide his master’s money.

The master returns and is greatly thrilled with the first two slaves. He rewards their trustworthy and hardworking nature by placing them in charge of many things, and then invites them into the joy of their master. But with the one talent slave, the master is very disappointed. The third slave was afraid of his master and saw that he was harsh, so he hid the talent in the ground. To which the master replies, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest.” The master takes away the one talent and orders the slave to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Out of all the parables that Jesus shared with his disciples, this one has probably been more abused and misused than any other. Once any parable is abstracted from the proclamation of the kingdom, misreading is inevitable. Jesus shared a story about a shepherd who goes after the one sheep that is missing – God rejoices in seeking out those who are lost, even if they appear insignificant. Jesus tells another story about a young man who squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father begging to be welcomed as a slave and the father throws a great banquet for the return of the prodigal – God, though harsh, is a loving, reconciling, and forgiving presence.

Parable Definition

The parable of the talents however, has been twisted around to fit the arguments of many pastors and theologians throughout the centuries. For instance, this passage has been cited, in prosperity gospel churches, as a defense for why God wants us to become wealthy; God blesses us money so that we can make more money! Additionally this scripture has been used to claim that the poor are poor because of their own faults and problems, God gave them all the opportunities in the world to become rich, but they failed to pull themselves up by their boot straps and make something of themselves.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend to his followers that we should work hard, make all the money we can, to give all we can. Instead, the story is a judgment against those who think they deserve what they earned, and a judgment against those who do not know how precious is the gift that they have been given.

The slaves did nothing to earn their five, two, and one talents. They were given as gifts! What becomes crucial is how they regarded the gifts and what they did with them.

A professor of mine in seminary named Stanley Hauerwas is widely regarded as a radical ethicist in the church. He has made some stunning proposals throughout his career about the need for the church to be the church and reclaim a sense of its radical nature in order to return to its mission for the kingdom of God.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

He argued that we, as pastors, should never perform funerals in funeral homes because the services of death and resurrection should always take place where baptisms happen. He argued that we, as pastors, should never marry strangers off the street but take the time to know them intimately before bringing them together in holy marriage. He argued that we, as pastors, should remove American Flags from sanctuaries because the flag’s presence blurs the line between what our country expects of us, and what God requires of us. But one of the strangest proposals he ever made has to do with money and the church.

When we receive new members we often have them stand up here in front of the church like Tom and Linda will do a little bit later and take vows of membership. They promise to serve the church with their time and gifts for the glory of God. We then applaud them and shake their hands after the service.

Hauerwas believes that we should add a new requirement to membership. Whenever we receive new members, they should stand in front of the entire gathered body and announce how much money they earn in a calendar year… (pause for dramatic emphasis)

“Hi, I’m Taylor Mertins. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, I am a transplant to the Staunton region and I really enjoy the pace of life here. I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I make $36,500 a year.”

His reasoning behind this is two-fold: It would allow the church to have greater transparency regarding the wealthy during times of need. If everyone knows who the bigger earners are, they can seek them out when someone in the community is in dire straits, or if the church needs immediate help with something.

It would also allow the church to recognize the great gaps of wealth within the local congregation regarding the rich and the poor. When a family joins that make very little during the year, it would allow us to know who it is that we can truly help by consolidating our resources. We, as Americans, do such a good job at trying to cover up our socioeconomic status that we are blind to those who are in need in the pews next to us. 

What do you think? Should we adopt his plan here at St. John’s?

I’m not so sure. I understand his idea on principle, but I believe that it would result in us abusing one another and it would prevent us from viewing everyone as part of the body of Christ. If you discovered that one of the humble women in the church was a millionaire wouldn’t you treat her differently? If you discovered that one of the men who appears very wealthy has no money at all, wouldn’t you treat him differently?

Yet, at the same time, I really like Hauerwas’ idea. It would push us to be more vulnerable with one another about what we have to offer, and what we need. So I’m going to offer a slightly different proposal. What if, when we received new members, we required them to share their talents with us?

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Jesus’ parable of the talents uses money, but in the big picture it has nothing to do with money at all. God, as the master, has given each of us unique abilities and talents that we have been tasked to use in the world for the kingdom. To some he has given more talents than to others, which is to say the hand is not the foot, nor is the arm like the leg, in the body of Christ. Yet everyone has been blessed with some talent that is beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly important. 

Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do — work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and learning to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share with him.

The slaves that earned more with their talents did so because they worked with what they had. No effort is made to describe how the slaves doubled their talents, but that they worked hard with the talents the master had given them. However the one talent slave rationalizes his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him by blaming the master! How often are we guilty of the same thing? —Blaming God for the failures that are indeed our fault.

Since the beginning of the church is has been a routine for Christians to excuse themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. How can little ole me possibly do anything for God’s kingdom?

Let me assure each of you of the contrary: You have been given gifts, wonderful and unique talents, that are begging to be used in the church for the world, and in the world for the church. You might not recognize them as such, you might feel insecure about whatever they are, but God has endowed you with the gifts so that they can be used. If you hide them inwardly, if you dig a hole in the ground, you fail to make good on the investment that God has made in you.

Jesus insists, through the parable, that the talents that God has provided us are to be used and implemented to their full ability. Christian discipleship is not something that we can just hope our pastors or churches can carry us through, but instead requires hard work. It demands that we take a good look at our lives and talents and ask how we can put them to use for God’s kingdom.

What talents do you see in your life? Are you a teacher who has the gift of sharing the Good News of God’s Word with others? A carpenter who has the gift to repair and shape shelters for others? A prayer warrior who has the gift to pray for our church, our community, and our world? A financially savvy individual who has the gift of helping others learn how to manage and invest their money? A nurse or doctor who has the gift of healing and presence?

I see a church full of Christians who have gifts that God has given.

Church should be like a great talent show where we share with others what God has given us, so that we can them employ those gifts for the kingdom. What are you doing with your talents?

Amen.