Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Summer Blockbuster Sermon - "Finding Dory"

On Sunday, I preached the first of this year's sermons on religious themes in new summer movies, considering the deeper lessons of the new animated film, "Finding Dory."  This is the sequel to the very popular movie, "Finding Nemo."  In the new movie, Dory, a blue tang fish with short term memory loss, relies on friends to help her look for her parents.  Because she can quickly forget things, Dory needs to rely on the help of others.

In large ways, the search in the movie is not just for Dory's parents, but for Dory herself.  What is it that makes her unique?  Were these qualities she was born with?  Or some that she was taught.

This reminded me of the education of Moses, the Hebrew boy who was raised by the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh.  During the course of his life, Moses had many defining encounters with others who shaped him, including with God in the burning bush and on Mt. Sinai; but there also was a part of Moses that seems to have been born in him.

Sorting out some of these threads in both the adventure of Dory in the movie and the life of Moses described in the Bible, I realized that there was a deeper story here about discovering one's core identity.  For Dory, it is something much more than a fish with short term memory loss.  For Moses and the Hebrews he lead out of slavery in Egypt, it was about understanding that they were not slaves, but God's chosen people.  And for us today, it is about learning that we are not disappointments or failures, but that we are each a precious and loved child of God.  Without recognizing these core identities, it is difficult to understand the rest of who were are.

Click here to listen to the sermon.  In addition you can listen to the Communion meditation and closing benediction.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

This Week's "Summer Blockbuster" Sermon

On Sunday, I will continue this year's "Summer Blockbuster Sermon Series" by considering theological lessons in Aloha.  This is a flop -- a movie from a well-known writer-director, Cameron Crowe (who wrote and directed Jerry Maguire) with an all-star cast that has fallen flat at the box office.

This, sadly, is deserved.  The movie is a mess.  It feels like it was a 3 hour movie that has been drastically edited into the released form.  Often scenes appear from nowhere and make little sense.  (On the other hand, the movie is extremely well-acted, so it's not a total loss.  Just a mess.)

Still, the theme of secrets, which undergirds the movie, offers an interesting way to consider the way that secrets are presented in the Bible, particularly in the life of Jesus.  You can catch a glimpse of this (at least in the form of a love triangle) in the official movie trailer for Aloha:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

"The Nature of Love"

While we continued our journey along Godsway 66 with the Jewish wisdom literature during Lent, we also considered "The Nature of Love" during Wednesday evening services and Holy Week.  (Happily, this is also a theme in some of the wisdom literature, especially the Song of Solomon and many Psalms.)

Here, in one place, you can listen to all of the meditations from this series, lasting from Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday.

The titles were all inspired by the description of love written by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Review: "Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul"

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul by John M. Barry (Viking, 2012), hardcover, 480 pages

The relationship between religion and the political state in the United States is a complex issue.  While some cite a line from a Thomas Jefferson letter advocating a 'wall between church and state' as a guiding (and amusingly, sacred) text, the issues consistently overlap in American life.  However, the legal protection for freedom of religion that developed in the United States was a radical departure from the government control of religion in Europe over the preceding centuries.

So, how did the idea of religious liberty become so influential in the United States?  Many probably imagine that it came with the Puritans, who saw the ways that both government and the church could become corrupted and emigrated to New England in search of freedom.  Less well known, however, is that they wanted the freedom to create a similar system where the government could legally uphold the orthodox church -- political ways to preserve the purity of their envisioned "City on a Hill."  Instead, it was dissidents to these Puritans, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, who sought legal protections for religious liberty so they could practice their faith without fear of punishment.

Ironically, a few Puritans themselves sought religious liberty too when their ideas were deemed unorthodox -- and thus illegal -- by officials in the Massachusetts colony.  The most famous of these was Roger Williams, a Puritan theologian who, after refusing to recant some of his teaching, was banished from Massachusetts and ended up founding Rhode Island.  Throughout his life, he would not only practically seek religious liberty for himself, but he would provide the theoretical and theological argument endorsing such liberty.

The ways that life, education, experience, and a confluence of significant historical events shaped Williams and his thinking about religious liberty is the subject of John M. Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty.  Barry, a historian who has written well regarded accounts of the 1917 influenza outbreak and the 1927 Mississippi River flood, argues that Williams is the central character in shaping America's unique relationship of church and state, with its protection of religious freedom.  While such an argument is an oversimplification of a very complex story that has evolved over four centuries, the biography of Williams certainly highlights almost all of the main parts of that larger story.

In some ways, Williams is a tragic and inspiring figure.  Despite his influence, he sacrificed an easy life to live out his beliefs about government and religion, and he passed opportunities for financial gain for the sake of the larger good.  Through his connections in British government, he was able to attain British protection of the nascent Rhode Island colony and its unique religious liberty; through his careful leadership in Rhode Island, he turned a rather rag-tag group of inhabitants into a group who, by majority rule, would uphold religious liberty even in trying circumstances.

Barry writes the story of how Williams came to espouse such beliefs and how he lived them out in his life in an overlapping account.  The early sections detail his education -- both formal and informal education -- in his native England, making particular note of the influence of Edward Coke on Williams' thinking.  Roger Williams was a stenographer for the brilliant jurist who famously opposed Francis Bacon.  Coke's arguments about the importance of the law itself, as opposed to the whims of the rulers, greatly shaped Williams ideas not only about the limits of rulers and the authority of laws properly enacted, enforced, and adjudicated but also about the nature and limits of religious authority.

In time, Williams would trade on his influence with such leaders in Oliver Cromwell's era to gain British sanction for his experimental government in Rhode Island.  He also would write letters, pamphlets, and books espousing his ideas on such matters, which likely influenced the key political philosopher just coming of age during that period, John Locke (who in turn would greatly influence the key generation of America's founders, especially Thomas Jefferson).

More exciting, though, was Williams life in New England, first through his efforts to be part of the Massachusetts colony and then, after his banishment, through his formation and protection of the Rhode Island settlements.  Barry details episode after episode where Massachusetts leaders try to undercut Williams, force him to change, and then, after he established Rhode Island, try to wrest control of the land away from him.  Barry also recounts some of the key internal challenges that the nascent colony faced, including the influence of some people more interested in personal profit than religious liberty or any of Williams' other ideas about government and law.

Occasionally, Barry is repetitive, and some might tire from his sometimes lengthy explorations of the philosophical and legal strands of Williams' thought (though I certainly did not), but otherwise this is a fine volume in which a single biography becomes the means for teaching about a larger historical narrative.  Williams was an influential figure who lived in a tumultuous time, shaping life around him and leaving an outsize legacy.  Most readers will be amazed at how eventful Williams' life was and how meaningful it was for the United States.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Lenten Prayer, Wednesday, February 25

During Lent, we are having special prayer services on Wednesday evenings.  The scriptures and music for these prayer services follows the theme "The Nature of Love," which is also the theme of this year's Holy Week services.  The titles of each service are taken from the phrases of Paul's famous description of love in 1 Corinthians.

This week's focus was "Love Is Kind," which I briefly reflected on in the Communion meditation, drawing on some words of Jesus recorded in Luke.

Click here to listen to the meditation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

February 22 Worship - "Job - Born to Suffer?"

After a pause for Lincoln Sunday, we resumed the journey along Godsway 66 this week.  We also celebrated the ongoing ministry of Week of Compassion through the collection of an annual special offering.

We turned our attention to the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the challenging book of Job.  In its exploration of suffering, it raises the significant question of whether all human beings are "Born to Suffer?"  Through a dramatic exchange of speeches and questions, it also explores issues of justice.  Surprisingly, it also has deep themes that defend the purity of human faith and share a deep sense in ultimate salvation.  Still, it is a thorny book that offers few definitive or easy answers (unfortunately for those of us who would like answers to the questions about human suffering).

If you missed Sunday's sermon, if you'd like to listen to it again, or if you'd like to share it with others, you can find an audio recording here.

You can also listen to Sunday's Communion meditation.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Lincoln Sunday, February 15 - "To Lay Down One's Life: The Martyrdom of Abraham Lincoln"

This past weekend, we again celebrated Lincoln Sunday at Eastgate.  The service featured music that could have been heard in the era, readings from the King James Version of the Bible, and some prayers taken from prayer books of the time, including some printed for soldiers to carry in the field.

I also preached my annual Lincoln Sermon.  This year is the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.  As such, I considered the meaning of Lincoln's death, especially the almost immediate determination by many that he was a martyr.  I placed this within the context of Jesus' famous statement about martyrdom: "greater love has no one than this -- to lay down one's life for another."

In the sermon, I considered what we should learn, through history and faith, about what is worth dying for -- and what is worth living for.

If you missed the sermon, if you'd like to listen to it again, or if you'd like to share it with others, you can find an audio recording of the sermon here.