Showing posts from 2019

The real prosperity gospel

Hundreds of thousands of American Christians believe in the prosperity gospel. One prosperity gospel preacher, Mac Hammond, memorably teaches that “God wants you to be a winner in every area of life” and emphasizes biblical principles to help you win financially. He regards wealth as “both a tool for wielding righteous influence and a reward for righteous living.”[1] In its crudest version, the prosperity gospel says that God blesses Christians with wealth proportionate to the seed they plant, that is, to their financial gift to the preacher’s ministry. Don’t worry. Although Holy Nativity’s stewardship campaign is currently underway, my message this morning is not that God will bless you in proportion to your pledge.

Haggai is one of the twelve minor prophets, minor connoting the length of the Old Testament books (two chapters in the case of Haggai) and not the importance of their message. All we know about Haggai is that he prophesied for three months in 520 B.C.E., the second year of…

Religion and the lack of civility

Nicholas Wade in his book, The Faith Instinct: How religion evolved and why it endures (New York: Penguin, 2009), argues that one evolutionary function of a religion is to bind a community together through common rituals and beliefs. In support of that claim, he points to Judaism which preserved Jewish identity even though the Jews lacked a nation state from the time of the Roman conquest until 1947.

Wade argues that Protestant Christianity performed a similar community creating and preservation role in the United States, causing adaptations in Roman Catholicism and Judaism that enabled those religions to fit within the American context without disrupting community identity. Ethical standards were enforced through incentivizing ethical conformance with the promise or threat of eternal reward or punishment. God was imagined to behave like the Santa Claus of song, keeping a detailed list of who has been naughty and nice.

In time, the dominant Christian ethos birthed American civil reli…

Becoming a saint

A family had sold everything possible to pay bills and to buy food. Nevertheless, a burglar broke in one night when the family was gone. The family returned and found the door knocked off its hinges.

"What did the burglar get?" the police investigator inquired.

The head of the household just shook his head. "Practice," he said.

The New Testament’s authors define a saint as any Christian,[1] the word’s meaning in today’s epistle reading.[2] But during Christianity’s first centuries, saint morphed to connote heroes of the faith, men and women whose embodiment of Christianity played large on history’s stage. Still popular among these heroes are Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, and the twelve Apostles, which is why they are known as St. Matthew, St. Luke, etc.

We Anglicans follow a flexible method for determining who to include in the roster of Saints with a capital “S”. We dub an individual Saint to recognize a person who lived the Christian faith writ large. The Boo…

Pride that goes before a fall

A Hindu priest, rabbi and TV evangelist were caught in a terrific thunderstorm. They sought shelter at a farmhouse. "That storm will be raging for hours," the farmer told them. "You'd better spend the night here. The problem is, there's only room enough for two of you. One of you will have to sleep in the barn."

"I'll be the one," volunteered the Hindu priest. "A little hardship is nothing to me." He went out to the barn. A few minutes later, the Hindu knocked at the door. "I'm sorry," he said, "but there is a cow in the barn. According to my religion, cows are sacred, and one must not intrude into their space."

"Don't worry," said the rabbi. "Come on in. I'll go sleep in the barn."

A few minutes later, the rabbi knocked at the door. "I hate to be a bother," he said, "but there is a pig in the barn. In my religion, pigs are considered unclean. I would feel uncomfortable …

Some musings about bail: Part 2, Why the system is broken and how to fix it

Part 1 of this post presented an overview of the bail system in the U.S.

By all accounts, the present system of pre-trial release and confinement is broken. Too many accused individuals who pose little immediate threat to self or the community sit in jail awaiting trial. Too many individuals who need to be in a secure residential treatment facility for addiction or other mental illness sit in jail or are released, frequently recidivating.

Releasing some accused individuals on personal recognizance or in the supervised custody of another individual or institution works well for a substantial number of arrested persons, e.g., those with steady employment who have no record of criminal activity, non-appearance in court, etc. Increased utilization of monitoring through the use of ankle bracelets might expand the number of accused for whom one of these options is appropriate. Advantageously for the taxpayer, these are the lowest cost alternatives to pre-trial incarceration and therefore wo…

The Bible is a window through which to see God

Two longtime friends were arguing over who knew the most about the Bible. The first finally said, "OK, prove it, you think you know so much. I'll bet you $50 that you don't even know the Lord's Prayer!"

The second friend thought for a couple minutes, and then said, "Sure, you're on. 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep …'"[1]

The first friend was astounded. He took $50 out of his pocket and said, "You sure surprised me. You win!"

Fifty years ago, preachers presumed that their hearers had some familiarity with many biblical passages and stories. That is no longer true. Incidentally, in case you are wondering, the Lord’s Prayer begins “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Survey after survey shows a huge gulf between the large percentage of people who say the Bible is important and the small percentage of people who actually read the Bible, even occasionally. Don’t worry – I’m not going to ask for a show of hands to i…

Some musings about bail: Part 1, The system

A person apprehended for allegedly committing a crime in the United States is, according to the U.S. Constitution, presumed innocent until found guilty by a jury of the person’s peers. The presumption of innocence raises the question of what to do with the accused until his/her trial.

One option is to incarcerate the accused until a court determines the person’s innocence or guilt. Incarcerating all accused persons prima facie violates the presumption of innocence. Human propensity to err constitutes the theological basis of this important legal safeguard against overzealous or corrupt law enforcement officials.

Incarceration is also expensive, for example, costing over $65,00 per year, per person, in Hawai’i. For individuals who pose an immediate threat to the community or to themselves, incarceration or mandated participation in a secure residential treatment program is appropriate. For all others, keeping the accused incarcerated is tantamount to punishing a person legally presume…

How gratitude changes us for the better

The Butterball Turkey Company had a hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in her freezer for twenty-three years. The operator told her it might be safe if the freezer had been kept below zero degrees the entire time. But the operator warned the woman that, even if it were safe, the flavor had probably deteriorated, and she wouldn't recommend eating the turkey.

The caller replied, "That's what we thought. We'll just give it to the church."[1]

Congregations routinely conduct annual pledge campaigns in the weeks before Thanksgiving, a season that encourages gratitude. Too often, people give God second best, what remains after satisfying all of their obligations and even many of their desires. “The flavor is gone. Give it to the church.”

Hearing the word leprosy almost invariably evokes thoughts of Hansen’s disease, which causes flesh to rot away. Entire appendages – finger…

Increase our faith

A deeply devout Christian woman died. Her son had inherited none of her faith. In his grief, for the first time, he wanted the comfort and strength that only faith can provide. So, he took his mother's glasses, her prayer book and sat in her favorite chair. He opened the prayer book and tried to hear what she heard. He put on the glasses and tried to see what she saw. All to no avail.[1]
We may chuckle at that story, yet at least occasionally most of us wish that our spirituality was stronger, deeper. Similarly, Jesus' disciples approached him and implored, “Increase our faith.”[2]
The early history of Jesus’ teaching about the mustard seed highlights one way to increase our faith. Scholars believe that Mark’s gospel was the first gospel written. In Mark, Jesus teaches his disciples that faith is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that grows into the largest of shrubs.[3] In Luke’s gospel, as we just heard, Jesus says that faith the size of a mustard seed can relocat…