“A Horizon of Hope” A Devotion on Jeremiah 32: 14-15

“Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” – Jeremiah 32:14-15 (NRSV)

It was the early 1970s when I first studied Jeremiah. It was the time of Watergate, Vietnam, and the Cold War. We were discouraged about the state of our nation and the world. Jeremiah prophesied during one of Israel’s worst times: the armies of Babylon had surrounded Jerusalem, and Jeremiah was under house arrest because his words had been too painful for King Zedekiah of Judah to hear. Continue reading

“Growing Up” A Sermon on Galatians 3: 23-29

Growing up isn’t easy! I’ve had four grandchildren in the last two and a half years, so you can imagine I have spent a good deal of time with toddlers, and I am in awe of my children’s parenting. Toddlers need constant supervision, encouragement, and correction. I’ve heard my children say, gently but firmly, things like: “We don’t throw things at the dog!” and “Careful. You really don’t want to stick your finger in your baby brother’s eye.” Continue reading

“Our Four Freedoms Report Card” A Devotion for Independence Day

“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” —John 8:32

On January 6, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address, which became known as the “Four Freedoms Speech.” As Europe was embroiled in WWII, and Pearl Harbor was just 11 months away, FDR put forth a summary of the democratic values that were under assault at the time. Continue reading

Paul on the Relationship of Christians to the Civil Authorities in Romans 13:1-7

Chapter 13.1-7 of Paul’s Letter to the Romans has been highly controversial and is a good subject for a lively conversation on just how Christians should view the government. The Christians that Paul is writing to lived in Rome, the capitol of the world’s biggest empire. Christians claimed that “Jesus is Lord,” the title that the Roman emperor, seen as a divinity, required. Could one say both “Caesar is Lord” and “Jesus is Lord?” Paul would say no, “there is one Lord, Jesus Christ.” So was simply being a Christian an act of sedition against the state?

If this new transformed community said that Jesus, rather than Caesar, is the true Lord how shall they live in the heart of the empire? This is what Paul was addressing in Chapter 13.1-7. Continue reading

A tribute to Max L. Stackhouse

MAx 2(Yesterday our church, the First Congregational Church UCC of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had a grand celebration for the life of Max L. Stackhouse. Our pastor, Brent Damrow, presided gracefully over a beautiful mosaic of spoken and musical offerings to remember and honor Max. Family, friends and colleagues shared their thoughts. There was a half hour of Bach organ prelude music by the Reverend Tim Weisman, Yo Yo Ma played a cello introit, an expanded choir sang an anthem under the direction of Tracy Wilson, and a choral benediction conducted by Joseph Flummerfelt. God was glorified and the promises of God were proclaimed. I was privileged to make some remarks. Here they are:)

I have been blessed to know Max for most of my adult life. I met him in 1971, when I started my studies at Andover Newton Theological School, where he was my teacher. Our paths have crossed ever since.

For three years I was a seminary intern at the church where Max and Jean and their family belonged. I was Dave’s 3rd grade church-school teacher. I must confess that I had one of those “Come to Jesus” moments when I realized that Professor Max Stackhouse’s child was in my class!

Eventually both Max and I ended up here in the Berkshires. Max was a frequent lecturer and guest preacher at the church I served in Pittsfield. After I retired we became fellow church members here in Stockbridge. Stockbridge was theological “holy ground” for Max, as two of his heroes, Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr, had lived here. Continue reading

“The God of the Far Off” Toward the Ministry of Inclusion

Prodigal sonWhat an extraordinary week this has been for our country! The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth liked to admonish the church that it must read both the Bible and the newspaper, because we Christians live in the world.

And what a week of news it was! There were two historic Supreme Court decisions that will change our national life in significant, and in my opinion, profoundly positive, ways.

On Thursday, by a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which makes health care available to all Americans.

And on Friday, by a 5-4 decision, Marriage Equality became the law of the land.

The reason I am here before you instead of our pastor Brent Damrow is that he is in Cleveland at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, representing the Massachusetts Conference. I am sure he will have stories to tell about the celebrations taking place there, as our national church has been a long and tireless advocate for equal rights for the LGBT community and a supporter  of marriage equality.

I believe that these two historic Supreme Court decisions share a common idea, and that is the idea of “inclusion.”

And a third extraordinary event in our national life also happened on Friday. President Obama climbed into the bully pulpit in Charleston, South Carolina to give the eulogy for the Honorable Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of the Emmanuel AME Church who, along with eight of his congregants, was murdered by a gunman while attending a Bible study at the church on June 17.

President Obama gave a stirring eulogy for Pastor Pinkney, but he was addressing not only those present, but also the nation. I’d like to share with you some excerpts of his eulogy:

The alleged killer could not imagine how the city of Charleston . . . .the state of South Carolina, how the United States of America would respond — not merely with revulsion at his evil act, but with big-hearted generosity and, more importantly, with a thoughtful introspection and self-examination that we so rarely see in public life.

Blinded by hatred, he (the alleged murderer) failed to comprehend what Reverend Pinckney so well understood — the power of God’s grace . . .

This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace . . .

According to the Christian tradition, grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. Rather, grace is the free and benevolent favor of God as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. Grace.

As a nation, out of this terrible tragedy, God has visited grace upon us, for he has allowed us to see where we’ve been blind. He has given us the chance, where we’ve been lost, to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency, and short-sightedness and fear of each other — but we got it all the same. He gave it to us anyway. He’s once more given us grace. But it is up to us now to make the most of it, to receive it with gratitude, and to prove ourselves worthy of this gift.

Martha and I were driving to Onota Lake in Pittsfield for a walk on Friday when the President’s eulogy came on the radio. We got to the parking lot at the boat ramp, but we didn’t get out of the car. We sat in the car until it was over, and when it was over I had tears streaming from my eyes.

The President was addressing the painful facts of racial relations in today’s America. He mentioned that in response to the massacre at the church the Confederate flag had been taken down in the South Carolina capitol and elsewhere. That flag, he said, was a symbol of our nation’s “original sin,” slavery.

The president had both the Bible and the newspaper in mind as he gave this incandescent speech. I don’t know of such a theologically astute presidential address since Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural.

And once again I would argue that inclusion is the big idea that binds all these events together. Inclusion.

I believe in the power of ideas to shape societies, and, as my teacher, mentor and friend, Max Stackhouse taught me, to examine where they come from and what they mean. So I want to do a little bit of that with you today about the idea of inclusion. Continue reading