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announcement: a collection of sermons

July 15th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

So, along with a friend from church, I’ve put together a collection of sermons. It would be an overstatement to say that it’s a book with a central argument (I have no idea how pastors find time to write real books). It’s more like a collection of sappy love letters about a community that has meant to world to us. It’s not polished. But everything in those pages comes from the heart.

If you buy it from the publisher’s website, it’s $17 (Amazon is charging $22). Presence: Giving and Receiving God (Cascade, 2011).

Presence, info

And here’s a pdf of the image above: Presence, info.

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Book Review: Graham Ward, Politics of Discipleship

July 13th, 2011 by isaac · 5 Comments

I wrote a review of Graham Ward’s new book, Politics of Discipleship. I usually very much appreciate his work, and I have learned a lot from his various theological explorations. But this one left me wanting.

The review is in the recent issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2011). So I guess you’ll have to track down a hard copy of the journal, if you’re interested. Below is the last part of the review, which gets to the heart of my criticisms:

Ward’s book runs into trouble from the moment he employs, like a number of other theologians currently in vogue, an ontological structure to the universe that shows how God makes a difference—or, to use Ward’s language, how transcendence makes a substantive difference within immanence. Yet, as Herbert McCabe has taught most British theologians of Ward’s generation, “God makes no difference to the universe.” “God cannot be outside, or alongside, what he has made.” God is not a system—and to posit an “outside” or “exterior” or “beyond,” to use Ward’s language, is still to create a system, a conceptual apparatus that explains God’s difference to the world. But McCabe is adamant that God cannot be part of a way to order or explain a cosmology. Arguing from within the thought of Thomas Aquinas, McCabe notes: “God does not come within the scope of our interpretation of the world.” Thomas “never slips into talking of God as an element…we identify as part of our intelligible universe, as an explanation of anything.” Unlike Ward’s theories of the power of transcendence to sway the world in the right direction, McCabe explains how “the power of God is exercised not in manipulating and interfering with things but in letting them be.” That all of creation is dependent on God’s power does not add anything to our knowledge about the nature of things. There is no such thing as a “transcendent” perspective that provides special knowledge about the way the world works. “Coming to know that the universe is dependent on God does not in fact tell us anything about the character of the universe,” writes McCabe, “If we think we can it is only because we have smuggled something extra into our concept of God.” In McCabe’s terms, Ward tries to smuggle foreign notions of transcendence into his concept of God. The danger with McCabe’s Thomist account of God, someone like Ward would argue, is that the wind is taken out of the sails of Christian discipleship in the political mode. But McCabe thinks a proper doctrine of God has everything to do with liberating Christians to change the present order of life. For one thing, in opposition to Ward’s vision, it means that the struggle against global capitalism is fought alongside postmodern immanentists and with the same tools of resistance that they use, instead of positioning them as part of the problem. Contrary to the ontology Ward creates, conceptions of transcendence do not provide special political tools. God is not an extra tool.

But without transcendence do Christians have anything to add to the conversation about human liberation from under the reductive materialism of global capitalism? That seems to be the anxiety at the heart of Ward’s book. Does not the gospel make a difference? McCabe provides an answer:

God is not part of the world, God is the unfathomable mystery of love by which the world is; there are no gods, there is only this love. And when we preach the gospel in these terms…our hearers will indeed always be puzzled, perhaps especially our Christian hearers will be puzzled. They will say: Is this what the Church teaches? Where is the religion, where is the piety, where are the gods? Where is the special language of Church things? If we speak as the Spirit has given us utterance our hearers will be bewildered because each will hear us speaking in his own language the wonderful things of God.

Like a nomad, the gospel makes its home anywhere. The Spinozian language of immanence is, perhaps, as good as any other. But we do not know until we try to speak in it. We are still waiting for theologians to help us learn that language. Judging from his most recent contribution, Ward is not one of them.

→ 5 CommentsTags: reading corner · theology

Prophets: a sermon on Jeremiah

June 29th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

an excerpt from Sunday’s sermon:

I remember sitting in the living room, watching the daily press conferences where General Norman Schwarzkopf—his fans called him “Stormin’ Norman”—I remember watching Stormin’ Norman on the TV as he showed his maps of the Middle East, giving us the play by play of the progress of the troops. As he described the military operations, I would get out my Desert Storm cards and consider the stats of each player in the war—the distance a cruise missile could travel, the number of fighter planes on an aircraft carrier, the capabilities of the A-10 bomber or the Apache helicopter.

I no longer collect war cards; I don’t even know if they make them anymore. And while I’m committed to Christ’s way of peace, I admit that some habits die hard, some ways of thinking are not easily undone.

When I pay attention to myself, I notice that there is something inside of me that still thinks that I am in charge, that I should take hold of the power I have and use it to change the world, to restructure society—to, for example, put a president in office that is a little less violent than the one we have, to rewrite our national and state budgets to include more provisions for the sick and the poor, and to find ways to let undocumented residents to live here without fear of deportation. I could go on and on about what I want, about how I want to change society, about what I would do if I were in control, if I were in charge.

For the rest of it, go here: Prophets

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Hope that is in you

June 1st, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

A sermon from last Sunday on hope, 9/11, nonviolence, and church membership.

As I considered giving up on the Christianity of the people around me, someone told me about Mennonites and the Anabaptist version of Christianity. These stories saved my faith. I heard about a way of being Christian that took Jesus seriously—that took seriously all of Jesus’ teachings, including his nonviolence in the face of death. I realized that I could continue to call myself a Christian, as long as I was part of a church and a tradition that considered Jesus’ nonviolence as essential to the Christian faith, a non-negotiable. I was convinced that nonviolence is what hope looks like in our world. Because to ask for someone’s death would be to give up on the power of God’s forgiveness. To kill someone would be to disbelieve in the transformation of God’s grace. Violence is a refusal to hope for the impossible, for a miracle, a refusal to hope for resurrection. In a society that celebrates the death of enemies, our faith in Jesus’ way of nonviolence is an act of hope—hope in the miraculous power of God’s redemption, that the One who raised Jesus from the dead can also lead evil people to repentance and new life.

For the rest of it, look here: “Hope that is in you”


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Mothers’ Day in Alabama, 1961

May 9th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

A passage from my sermon:

This past week was a historic week for people in America. This week, fifty years ago, in 1961, a group, assembled from all over the country, got on buses in Washington, D.C., and began their trip to the South. The Freedom Riders—that’s what they were called, “black and white, young and old, religious and secular, Northern and Southern.”[1] Their goal was to press the Southern states to adhere to a recent Supreme Court decision, Boynton v. Virginia (1960), which said that it was unconstitutional for states to maintain segregated waiting rooms, lunch counters, and restrooms for interstate travelers.[2] Wherever the buses made a stop, white Freedom Riders would use the facilities for blacks, and black Riders would use the “whites only” services.

The Freedom Riders weren’t naïve. They knew that they would be in for some trouble, especially as they would make their way through the Deep South. But they were committed to nonviolence. This is what James Farmer, one of the main organizers had to say in an interview right before they started their journey: he said,

If there is an arrest, we will accept that arrest… and if there is violence we will accept that violence without responding in kind… We will not pay fines because we feel that by paying money to a segregated state we would help it perpetuate segregation.[3]

For the rest of it, check here: Freedom Riders


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A local Easter story: Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis

April 25th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

Here’s part of my Easter sermon:

For C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, friendship seemed impossible. According to the old order, these two were to treat each other as if the other was a disease that led to death; the one was dead to the other. In this old order, a shroud of death enveloped their interactions, restricting what could be possible. Not only were they willing and able to kill each other, but other people in their communities threatened death if they worked together. Late at night, when C.P. would answer his phone, he would hear unknown voices and, sadly, the voices of old friends; they would threaten to kill him if he continued to work with Ann.

But death would not have the last word. Something happened to both of them, to C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater, that shook them free from the shackles of the old, and invited them into a whole new world of possibility. This is an Easter story because new life happened where there should have been death. This is a resurrection story because a power no one could control broke through hardened ways of life and created unheard of possibilities: that a militant black radical and an exalted cyclops of the Klan let their lives become intertwined. Despite what each thought was true about the other, they found themselves converted, transformed, changed. They found themselves becoming family, a sister and brother, members of the family of God.

For the rest of it, here’s a link: Easter at CHMF


→ No CommentsTags: race & ethnicity · sermons

Footwashing on Holy Thursday

April 20th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

I wrote a couple articles about our Holy Thursday footwashing services last year. They were published this month in the Mennonite magazine.

Here’s a passage from one about how footwashing draws us into the intimacy with God and each other:

As you bow down like a humble servant, your body learns the movements of Christs obedience, which ushers in God’s kingdom. This isn’t some ethereal or strictly spiritual reality. God’s revolution happens when you let someone take your dirty feet in her hands, because with those hands comes Christ’s love. These earthly and fleshly movements of love—the overflowing water, the gentle touch of hands and feet—is the caress of Christ’s tender love that draws us into the reign of God.

For the rest of it, follow this link: Sheeplike Love


The one below is from a footwashing service I participated in at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency detention center. Footwashing has political implications, and I explore those implications for our current arguments about immigration:

As you can see, there are two chairs behind me. If you want your feet washed, please come forward and sit in this chair, and I will wash your feet. But this other chair up here will remain empty as a sign of all the bodies that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has hidden from us, the bodies that law enforcement officers have torn from our communities and our families in the middle of the night, the bodies they have ripped away from our churches. By refusing to let us wash the feet of the people hidden in their detention centers, the federal government has dismembered the body of Christ, they have torn apart the church, they have pierced and severed the body of Jesus.

For the rest of it, follow this link: Bodies Matter

→ No CommentsTags: immigration · published · sermons

“Who is this?” A Palm Sunday sermon

April 19th, 2011 by isaac · No Comments

Excerpt from my Palm Sunday sermon:

But, if we really want an answer to our questions about Jesus, if we really want to know who he is, we have to follow him, we have to stay with the crowd that follows him. Palm Sunday is a procession to the cross—that’s where our praises and questions lead us to Golgotha. As the 16th century Anabaptist-Mennonite, Hans Denck, wrote: “We cannot know Christ unless we follow him daily in life.” We cannot know Christ unless we follow him daily in life. For us, knowing is a way of life. With Jesus, to know him has as much to do with our hands and feet as with our thoughts.

On Palm Sunday, you are in the crowd. You are here, part of this group, assembled around Jesus. Maybe you are here to offer your praises, full of certainty and hope. Or maybe you are here to keep your questions alive, to keep on wondering, to wrestle, to struggle, to ask again and again, “Who is this Jesus?”

Either way, you are here and that’s what matters, at least for now. You are in the crowd, gathered around Jesus. But Palm Sunday leads into Holy Week, where we remember the passion of Christ, his rejection by the world, his abandonment by his friends, and his humiliation on the cross. This one who rides into town on the donkey will make his way to Golgotha, the place of crucifixion.

For more of it, check out our church website: Who is this?


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Hans Denck’s response to James Davison Hunter (and Tim Keller)

April 7th, 2011 by isaac · 3 Comments

I read James Davison Hunter’s new book last year: To Change the World (2010). I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few months. This morning I read a passage from Hans Denck, an Anabaptist leader in the 16th century. Remarkably, Denck names the arts and the economy (as well as the government) as the sites of power in our world. Instead of simply locating power in the domain of government and politics, Denck is able to see that those who can influence the culture and the economy have worldly power. While Hunter (and the popularized version in Tim Keller) call Christians to maintain “faithful presence within” places of cultural, political, and economic power, Denck articulates a very different path:

And let no one look to the high-ranking people of this world, whether in government, in the arts or in the economy. He whose heart is directed towards heaven would do better to align himself with the despised and humble people of this world. Their lord and master is Jesus Christ, who became the most despised of all men and as a result was raised up by God the Father to reign over all creation. Woe to him who looks elsewhere rather than at this objective. The person who claims to belong to Christ must follow the path taken by Christ. (quoted in Hans-Jurgen Goertz, The Anabaptists, 143)

It’s all about Christology: about God choosing to be faithfully present among those rejected by the powerful, not among those who have the power to reject. As Karl Barth put it in his doctrine of reconciliation, Jesus Christ is the rejected One.

→ 3 CommentsTags: political power · reading corner · theology

a sermon on the blind beggar in John 9

April 4th, 2011 by isaac · 2 Comments

I preached yesterday on the story of Jesus’ healing of the blind beggar in John 9. Here’s part of it:

Who are the people our society has rejected because their existence calls everything into question? Who are the people we would rather keep at a distance—out of sight out of mind—because we know that as soon as we take them seriously, our lives will become all the more complicated? Two populations come to my mind, and I bet you can guess who they are because I mention them probably too often: the homeless and prisoners. They are a constant reminder that the way we organize our lives in this country is unjust. They are signs to us of the failure of our society, of our status as a kind of failed state, at least for those who have been rejected.

Besides those two groups, I am spending a lot of time these days thinking about combat veterans. It seems as if we don’t want them too close to home because we are discovering that the wounds of war run deep, and we would rather not think about such suffering. Last year more soldiers committed suicide than were killed in combat. Not only are they a sign to us of the horrors of war, but they also unmask the darkness of our way of life—that our life here in the United States is indebted to violence, a violence we would rather keep at a distance. Pacifism can easily become a way to make us comfortable with our blindness to the violence that permeates our lives.

As I mention these lists of different groups of people, I find myself among the disciples at the beginning of John’s story: the friends of Jesus who point at the blind beggar from a distance, and use him to ask a questions about the system in which they live: How does he fit in? How are we supposed to sit here and think about them? Rabbi, who sinned, him or his parents, or the schools or the economy or the criminal justice system or the president or the Democrats or the Republicans? Who started us down this path of sin? Who can I blame?

For the rest of it, here’s a link to my church website: “We are not blind, are we?”


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