An Inaugural Address

(This address was given on Nov. 5th, 2016 by The Rev. Dr. John A. D’Elia on the occasion of his installation as the first President of the New Theological Seminary of the West.)

Family and friends, members of our board of trustees; students, faculty and honored guests, thank you so much for being here today. Your presence is a gift not only for me, but also for the New Theological Seminary of the West. As we establish ourselves in this region—as we work to provide practical ministry training that is rooted in deep theological reflection—your presence here affirms our goals and demonstrates your support. On behalf of our seminary, I want to say a very heartfelt thank you.

It is a long-standing tradition at events such as this one to pose a question of some great significance, and then spend 30 minutes or so coming up with some lofty-sounding answers.

The problem is that after a year and a half of this particular election season—of the accusations, recriminations, denunciations and repudiations, here’s the big question that I came up with: After the 18 months we’ve just endured, who would want to be president of anything right now?

Well, I suppose the obvious answer, since I’m standing here we’re all together today, is that I would. In a few minutes a group of men and women made up of people who know more than I do—who believe more deeply than I can muster sometimes—and who have accomplished more in their lives and ministries than I could ever hope for—in a few minutes those good people are going to place their hands on me, and pray for me, and make me the president of their seminary—of our seminary. I am truly honored to be chosen for this role.

Because I still believe in the church of Jesus Christ. As a church historian who specializes in the history of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, I’ll admit that it’s not always easy. Our shared Christian history is one of conflict and division and separation. But as a follower of Jesus and a minister of the gospel, my passion is for the unity and mission of the local church—of these gathered clusters of broken women and men who come together to grow in their faith, and love their communities, and reach out to other people with the gospel. I will say it freely and proudly: I love the church, even when it disappoints.

I learned that love right here at the First Presbyterian Church of Burbank. I was baptized here. I was welcomed into membership here when I was 14 years old. I was ordained as an elder and a few years later was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament—all of those important events happened within about 15 feet from where I’m standing right now.

I even preached my first sermon here. The text we read today (Luke 5:27-32) was the same passage I used here on Youth Sunday in 1979—the sermon was titled: “Is This a Hospital or a Health Club?” I learned in this place that Jesus didn’t come to hang out with the perfect people; that he came to be with folks who were sick and broken and hurting.

I accepted Christ as my savior here. I was given opportunities to test my gifts for ministry here. When those early attempts were successful my church family celebrated. When they fell flat or failed miserably, the people of this church gave me a hug and another chance. It was here that I learned what a church can be—the impact that a church can have on the lives of the people who come and participate.

I also learned that the church could be a model of unity. Don’t laugh. We remember the conflicts more clearly, but one of my enduring memories of growing up here was our own Pastor Bill Craig weeping with joy in this pulpit when the northern and southern Presbyterian churches reunited in 1983, after separating over the Civil War in 1861. Whatever else is broken about the church from time to time, occasionally we get it right and show the world that we mean what we say, and that we really do follow a Prince of Peace.

I started in my new role in May of this year, and the next month I went to the biennial meeting of the Association of Theological Schools—that’s the ATS for the cool kids out there. I flew to St Louis and checked into my hotel—I walked down to the registration table and got in line. The man in front of me turned around and we introduced ourselves. No joke—after learning my name, the first question out of his mouth was, “So where are you on the theological spectrum?”

Seriously. This guy had known me for all of about a minute and he was already trying to figure out which theological box he could stuff me into. I knew what he was after. There are a handful of positions—some theological and some more social or behavioral—there are a handful of positions that divide Christians and churches and seminaries from each other. I evaded the question and talked about my own faith for a few seconds. He turned around to look at his phone and those were the last words we shared.

I’m going to answer that question today, about where I fall on the theological spectrum, but not quite yet. I have some other things I want to say first.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then certainly we’ve learned that election seasons can give birth to opportunities to renew the Christian call to civility and unity. We’ve been reminded of why the prophetic witness of the church is so essential. Whatever our partisan leanings, this last year proved that the Christian call to love our neighbors, even when we see them as our enemies—loving our neighbors isn’t an outdated teaching of a bygone day. It’s a roadmap for living as disciples of Jesus in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society.

I’m reminded of an old episode of “The West Wing”, when one of the characters, Josh Lyman, went on a rant about the contempt both political parties showed for the other. This was before the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Before Barack Obama. Before the left and the right said so many hateful things about the other side that they stopped realizing that the things they were saying were hateful. We can whine all we want about the current election season. The truth is, we have just endured exactly the presidential campaign we deserve.

Certainly we can do better than this. Certainly we as Christian people can offer something better. The New Theological Seminary of the West is committed to training leaders who love Jesus, who have the tools to wrestle with the hard questions of Bible and culture, and who place a high value on civility and graciousness as they live and share the message of the gospel.

We’re not the first to try to do this, of course. In May of 1955 Edward John Carnell was installed as the president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He was a veteran of the fundamentalist controversies that led to splits and conflicts that were tearing the church apart. He thought that one solution could be found in the way church leaders were trained. In his own installation address, called “The Glory of a Theological Seminary”, he made the case for teaching students to be tolerant and gracious toward people who didn’t believe the same things. He said:

“[A seminary [should teach] its students an attitude of tolerance and forgiveness toward individuals whose doctrinal convictions are at variance with those [of] the institution itself. Seminarians are seldom introduced to the presuppositions that undergird a Christian philosophy of tolerance. And yet indifference to this phase of Christian thought may well mirror a truncated grasp of Christianity itself.”

Let me translate what Prof. Carnell was saying:

We should teach our students to play nice with others.

We should teach them that the Bible says that’s how they should act.

If we don’t do that, it may be that we never understood the Christian faith very well in the first place.

The response to these words was not very positive at all. One student came up to Carnell after his address and said right to his face that all this talk about Christian love and tolerance nauseated him. Another student quit the seminary that day. The faculty was deeply divided over this call to civility and forgiveness, and after the service the only copy of the address was hidden in the seminary safe until most of the participants were dead. It was finally published in 1987.

In my own doctoral research I focused on the life and work of George Eldon Ladd, a Bible scholar from the 1950s and 60s. Ladd grew up in the fundamentalist tradition, but as a young man decided that being separate from the culture made it impossible to share any Christian influence on the culture. He went to Harvard and got a Ph.D. in New Testament, and became a seminary professor. In 1959 he went to a Baptist seminary in North Dakota and gave a speech to honor the opening of their new library. This school would have proudly identified itself as a fundamentalist institution, which makes what Ladd said either courageous or crazy. You can decide. He said:

“The fundamentalist movement has spawned and promoted the separatist movement. We see a great movement in America of…separatist churches within and without our denominations. The separatist movement is, I think, founded on a basic fallacy. It is founded on the [idea] that a church is apostate when it harbors liberalism, and upon the second fallacy that by separating you can create a pure Church.”

What Ladd was saying was that it was a mistake to believe that churches couldn’t survive if their members didn’t agree on everything. He added that it was foolish to believe that by leaving with the people who agreed with you, that you could somehow have a perfect church. The foolishness in that idea is that it forgets that in the end, there would still be people in the church. As long as people are involved in churches, churches are not likely ever to be perfect.

Why bring up two forgotten speeches by old white guys in the 50s? Besides the fact that my own academic work is focused on that era, the real reason is this: I take very seriously the warnings that Edward Carnell and George Ladd gave to the church back in the 1950s. We’re not getting anywhere arguing and dividing over issues that aren’t central to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only will we never achieve the perfect church, where everyone believes the same things the same way, but worse, when we try to do that we look like people who don’t even know our own savior.

When Jesus decided to describe for his followers the true mark of what it means to be a Christian, he said: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Not if you all agree. Not if your doctrinal positions are all neat and tidy.

“If you love one another.”

So back to my own theological position.

Daniel Kirk is a new testament scholar in the Bay Area. Earlier this year he wrote an article describing his own place in the theological spectrum, and it resonated with me.

He said: “I’m an evangelical because the Bible will always haunt me as the authoritative…word of God we hold in our hands. But I’m a progressive because Jesus, not the Bible, is the ultimate authority to whom I must bow as a Christian—and I do not believe that the final, liberating word has yet been spoken.”

I don’t know if I can say it better than that, but I can say it more personally.

I remain an evangelical because I believe that one essential marker of the church is our willingness to wrestle with the Bible we’ve actually been given, in all its frustrating messiness and offense to our modern minds. Because it is in the words of that Bible that we find the joy-filled message that in Jesus Christ God is working to redeem and reconcile and restore all people and all places to himself. I still call myself an evangelical because I believe we’re all called to share that message of reconciliation and restoration with anyone who will listen.

But I am called to be progressive because as I struggle to understand the Bible in the light of the church’s history, I am confronted with the mind-boggling truth that God is not finished with us yet.

Why do I believe that?

Because when the Bible was used to defend slavery, faithful Christians embraced the whole witness of Scripture and started the abolition movement.

Because when the Bible was used to defend a second-class status for women or people of color, faithful Christians immersed themselves in the pages of Scripture to say no, a two-tiered social structure is not what God had in mind when the Scriptures say: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female.”

Time after time, Christian people have challenged the status quo to uncover a new layer of God’s redemptive work in the world. And in each of those instances, they were branded liberals and radicals and faithless people.

But too often the self-appointed thought-police of the church turned out to be wrong. Not always, but too often. Sometimes the boundaries are stretched so far that the gospel loses its meaning, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as we think.

It is our holy task to look back on our history and learn from it so that we can temper our reactions to those brave women and men who are seeking to stretch the boundaries of our understanding of God’s redeeming work today—not to go beyond the limits of the Bible, but rather to catch up with its radical generosity.

I embrace the category of progressive-evangelical not because I believe less than the Bible promises, but because I believe that we haven’t yet come close to the edges of what God’s word is offering to us.

Just to close. If there is a commandment in the Bible that can get us through the aftermath of this election season, that can guide us through the conflicts we experience in our churches—if there is a single commandment that can help our seminary raise up and prepare a new generation of Christian leaders, it’s this: Love God, and love your neighbor.

That’s what I learned growing up in this church. That’s what has stayed with me through seminary and ministry and doctoral study. That’s what I want to nurture and grow at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the answer I should have given to that guy at the ATS conference. It’s the way I want to live my own life of discipleship. It’s the faith I want for my son and for my family. And those are the boundaries within which we’ll teach and train at the New Theological Seminary of the West.

When we’re finally done arguing and dividing and checking each other’s theological credentials, then we can get on with the business of being the people of Jesus in the Kingdom of God—of loving our neighbors and spreading the light of the gospel.

May we share that love, and shine that light, in this seminary, in our churches, and in our broken world. Amen.

9/11 “Everyone Has a Story”

(This sermon was given in a service of commemoration at the American International Church in London in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.)

Acts 1:1-11

Everyone has a story.

When I was growing up my parents used to talk about where they were when John F. Kennedy was killed. I remember where I was when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and crashed. It was the way my grandparents remembered Pearl Harbor or VE-Day. All of those tragic, historic moments become markers that stay with us—they become a part of the way we see the world around us. They shape how we think about everything that happens after that moment.

Everyone has a story.

This past week, as we’ve come up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, people have been sharing their stories of where they were and what they were doing—of people they knew who had been lost or who had suffered losses.

One of my closest friends from childhood is a flight attendant for American Airlines. She has a terrifying story to tell.

Some of my colleagues who are pastors in New York or New Jersey or Connecticut remember the tragic funerals that filled their calendars and broke the hearts of their congregations.

For months after the attacks, The New York Times ran a series of biographical sketches called “Portraits of Grief,” telling a little of the stories of almost 2000 of the victims who died that day—from bankers to busboys, from soldiers to security guards, from police officers to transit workers to those 343 firefighters who ran into the Towers and never came back. The stories gave faces and names to the numbers we heard on the news. It was essential reading.

Over the past few weeks the Los Angeles Times has been collecting short articles that highlight the impact of that day on people’s memories now.

I was working for Fuller Seminary in California at the time of the attacks, had been in New York on a fund raising trip about a week and a half before. Most of us on the west coast were sleeping when the first plane crashed into the World Trade Center—it was 545am in California. Many of us who woke up to the news at 6 saw the second plane crash a few minutes later. My son was not quite a year and a half old that day. I wondered what kind of world he was going to grow up in.

Everyone has a story.

Acts 1:1-8

1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Our text from the first chapter of Acts is a story that comes right at the end of Jesus’ ministry and before the birth of the church—for those of you who follow these things, this passage falls just before the Ascension and Pentecost, the giving of the Holy Spirit. The disciples are in the presence of the risen Christ, still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the last month or so. Everything was going so well, then it all went catastrophically wrong, and then Jesus emerged from the tomb and you get the feeling that the disciples were just trying to keep up.

Jesus is preparing them for what was coming next, but the disciples didn’t understand what he was talking about. Did you catch that question they asked while Jesus was telling them what to expect? Jesus has lived with them and taught them and demonstrated his love by serving people and healing diseases and casting out demons and dying on the cross—he did all of that to show that the values of his Kingdom are different from those of the world. And after all that they ask him: “So are you going to restore Israel to power now already?”

You have to think that Jesus groans here, wishing they could understand what he was telling them, but he presses on and says: “Once the Holy Spirit comes to empower you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and all over the world.”

In so many words Jesus told them: You have a new story to tell, and I want you to tell it everywhere.

What was the story?

The first part of that story is that God came in the first place, that he took on human form. At Christmas when we sing about “Emmanuel,” we’re celebrating the mystery of “God with us,” of God coming to reconcile us to himself.

The second part of our story is the message that Jesus came to share. More than anything else he talked about the Kingdom of God. In his sermons and parables and his confrontations with religious and political power, Jesus described a world with values that went against the grain—of generosity and forgiveness, of grace and love for enemies.

But most importantly our story tells of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross—of his taking on our sin and punishment so that we could come freely into the presence of God.

When Jesus told his disciples to “be my witnesses,” this is the story he wanted them to tell.

Being a witness in Jewish tradition was a very important thing. Only with two witnesses could a case be presented in court. Being an honest witness was so important that it becomes one of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against anyone.”

To be a witness was to testify, along with others, to the love and grace and sacrifice and redemption available through Jesus Christ.

The essence of the gospel is this: Through the life and ministry of Jesus we have seen what the world can look like when it operates according to the values of the Kingdom of God. Through the sacrifice of Jesus the Messiah we receive the good news that all people in all places can be reconciled to God.

So God’s already done the heavy-lifting. God has already done the work. The call on each one of our lives needs to be crystal clear: It isn’t to save the world. It’s to tell the story of the one who already has.

If that’s the story we’re meant to tell, then what does that mean for us today, as we gather to remember a horrible day and the impact it’s had on our lives?

First, it means that our lives aren’t trapped or limited by our memories of what happened 10 years ago. The gospel story is there to keep our fear and our anger in check—we have to keep from lashing out in revenge against people Christ came to redeem and to reconcile to himself.

Second, that new story means this: In the upside-down values of the Kingdom of God, our story of the September 11th attacks can become a catalyst for more forgiveness, not less. More work in the area of peacemaking, not less. More acts of gospel-sharing grace that tell the story of Jesus Christ in a meaningful, life-changing way.

But most importantly, to be a witness to the story of Jesus Christ is a daring, world-changing act of hope in a world that doesn’t have much of it right now. It’s an act of hope wrapped in the faith that announces to the world that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again to make all things new.

How does all of that happen? That’s what we’re meant to discover together as the family of God, the Body of Christ, this local church. That’s why we’re going to spend the next few months here talking about what it means to love our neighbors, even if our neighbors are our enemies. That’s an act of hope.

We tend to think of hope as something elusive—something we can’t really find on our own. Sometimes we think of hope as something that happens to us beyond our control.

But Christian hope is active—it’s rooted in God’s faithfulness to his promises in the past. Christian hope is a discipline—we practice it daily so that we can get better at it—so that it can be more than simply hoping for a good parking place, or hoping you get into the right school.

One great theologian wrote that Christian “Faith hopes in order to know what it believes.”

To be Christ’s witnesses in this world is to be people of hope, people who hope so that we can know God’s story is true. And so we can go out and be his witnesses with that new story here in London, all around this country, and to the ends of the earth.

Everything Depends On This

I was thinking about some old neighbors we had when I was growing up. We had a Japanese-American family on one side—a few times their grandfather shared with me about his experiences as an internee in Manzanar during WWII. Down the street there were neighbors we didn’t know very well, but we learned pretty quickly that the wife had a hard time parking her big car in their narrow driveway. She would get home at about 5:30 every day, and honk for her husband to come out and park the car for her. For years whenever we heard a car horn, our family joke was “that lady can’t park.”

On the other side of our house was a family that had a Bible study during the 70s that had a big influence on my mom’s life. Across the street there was a Puerto Rican family from New York. The boy who lived there was a little younger than me and tagged along with whatever I was doing at the time. They took me to the beach once when I was about 10, and I remember afterward the dad taking us out on the front lawn where he kneeled down and rinsed the sand from our feet. To this day he’s the only person I can remember ever washing my feet besides myself or my parents.

We had some interesting neighbors, but I never really thought about what it might mean to love those people. I didn’t choose them. I didn’t know them all that well. I never really thought about loving them.

Turns out Jesus did.

And not just the neighbors that live in places near us at any given time. Jesus calls us to love neighbors, and by neighbors he really means pretty much anyone who isn’t you.

Sometimes he means people who you can’t even stand.

Occasionally he means people who would rather kill you than be loved by you.

In multiple places and in different ways, Jesus Christ calls us to love the people around us—the other people he made and loves and wants to reconcile to himself.

In the aftermath of so many violent hateful acts, and as we approach the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this seems like the perfect time to talk about loving our neighbors—maybe even about loving our enemies. Jesus talks about both a lot, especially compared to some of the other issues that our churches get wrapped up in. He talks about it a lot, and if we’re honest we’ll admit that we don’t talk about it much at all.

Talking about loving God and our neighbors is really an extended conversation about what it means to be a mature Christian, to be a follower of Jesus. The church has spent 2000 years mostly trying to define what it means to be a Christian in terms of statements of things we believe. But Jesus had a different perspective. He saw faith as being thoroughly linked with action—not to earn God’s love, but as evidence that we’ve experienced God’s love.

Now I’m not ready to give up the idea that what we believe is crucial to being a Christian. I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying here. Doctrine matters—if only to put the brakes on our temptation to re-create God in our own image. Doctrine matters, but it’s not the point.

Jesus doesn’t define the life of faith by what we believe as much as he defines it by who and how well we love. Jesus doesn’t say “they’ll know you’re my followers by your sound doctrine.” No, Jesus says: “By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”


Matthew 22:34-40

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

It was a regular part of Jewish prayer life to begin and end each day with the prayer known as Shema Yisrael. We know it like this: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

This was the prayer that every faithful Jew said in the morning and again at night. It was the foundation for everything else. In our text someone approaches Jesus to trip him up, to catch him in some willful disobedience to the Jewish tradition. “What’s the most important commandment?” the guy asked.

Jesus took the main point of the Shema prayer and joined it with another line from Leviticus 19:18. “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

So Jesus’ response was to take a familiar answer and add to it something that hadn’t been connected to it before. Sure, every faithful Jew knew that they were supposed to love God, but it was easy to minimize that obscure bit about loving your neighbor. Jesus not only joined them together, but he added that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

The essence of being a follower of Jesus is to love God with all we’ve got—our heart and soul and mind—and to love and care for our neighbor as much as we love and care for ourselves.

How important is all of this? How central is this idea to what it means to be a Christian person? Let’s let Jesus take that one. He said: “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Everything depends on this. When Jesus says “all the Law and the Prophets” he means the entire foundation of faith in the one, true God. It’s such an enormous claim—such an over-the-top radical statement—it’s so huge that I can’t believe Matthew 22:40 hasn’t ended up on t-shirts and keychains and anywhere else it can be printed. I can’t believe we haven’t seen on a poster in the end zone of an American football game.

Everything depends on this.

Think about that for a moment. Everything the Bible teaches on sexuality or personal morality. Everything the Bible teaches on peacemaking or social justice. Everything we know or will ever know about theology and doctrine.

Everything depends on this.

Everything hangs on the one-two punch of “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We talk a lot about loving and serving God. We worship and fellowship together, we try to grow our faith through Bible study and reading. We try to move out in faith in our communities and around the world to be God’s messengers.

But loving our neighbor in the way that God defines love—and the way God defines neighbor—doing that part is a little more of a challenge. We’re going to focus on how these go together to form us into the people God wants us to be.

I want to recommend a very good book called The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor, by Mark Labberton. Loving our neighbors, the author says, is about aligning our hearts to God’s so that we see the world and the people in it with his eyes, his heart. This is directly connected to the issue of justice in the world. Listen to what he writes.

“Our hearts don’t consciously will injustice. Nor do they deliberately withhold compassion. Nor is it that tales of injustice fail to grab us and concern us. Yet our hearts are weak and confused. Our hearts are easily overwhelmed and self-protective. They’re prone to be absorbed mostly with the immediacy of our own lives. Our hearts have the capacity to seek justice, but they’re usually not calibrated to do so—at least not beyond concern for our inner circle. In a world of such hearts, virulent injustice thrives. Systemic injustice, the absence of the rule of law, and the suffering of so many innocents at the hands of oppressors—that injustice relies on the complicity and distraction of our ordinary hearts.”

In order to love our neighbors, even when our neighbors are our enemies, our hearts have to be calibrated—they have to be retuned so that we see the world and the people in it with God’s eyes—with God’s heart. It’s not easy—it seems overwhelming and challenging and impossible. And yet here’s the thing:

Everything depends on it.

In this time of tension and violence and fear, Christians need to be reminded that the mark of our faith is how we love the other. We need to talk and reflect and act on the commands Jesus actually gave, instead of on the isolated verses that confirm our own biases and hatreds. We need to remember that the commands Jesus gave were rooted in the faith he came to complete.

“Hear, my people, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

The world needs to hear that message from us. But more importantly, the world needs to experience that message from us in the ways we interact with our neighbors. May God bless you with a sense of urgency for sharing and living this message, today and always.


What Would I Say?

I’ve been reeling over these last 72 hours or so by the news in my country. I’ve seen two men die—killed by police officers in what appear to be unnecessary uses of deadly force. I’ve watched the aftermath of a sniper attack on police officers that killed five and maimed a handful more. There is far too much tragedy to go around right now.

After serving as a pastor for most of the last decade, I no longer preach regularly, but I wonder in times like this just what I would say if I had to step into a pulpit on Sunday. How would I try to make sense of this? What tiny little corner of the gospel could possibly bring meaning or comfort to the way a congregation might be feeling? How would I keep the peace, and still be faithful to the words and sacrifice of the Prince of Peace?

It’s a wrestling match, this weekly agony of what to say, and it only gets harder when the events and surrounding issues are as painful and contentious as the ones we’re neck-deep in right now.

What would I preach if it was my job to give the sermon this Sunday? Here goes.

So that I didn’t just find my own favorite crisis passage, I turned to the lectionary, a weekly list of passages that are designed to ensure that our congregations hear the whole Bible over time. I looked to see what was listed for this Sunday.

The gospel passage for July 10th is Luke 10:25-37.

That’s right, this Sunday we will read the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus tells the story of a man who was beaten by robbers who took everything he had and left him in the street to die. Two religious leaders pass him by with no explanation—they simply cross the street so they don’t have to look at the man as he bleeds to death. Then Jesus introduces the hero of the story, the Samaritan. He bandages the man and takes him to a place where he can be treated for his wounds—all at his own expense.

Now we think of Samaritans as people who are somehow genetically predisposed to be helpful, but that’s not the story Jesus is telling. Samaritans were considered defective Jews—they worshipped in the wrong place and practiced the wrong rituals and generally believed in the wrong way. Think of the kind of person who offends you the most. Muslim? Gay? Republican? Liberal? Now make them the hero of this story, and you begin to see the point Jesus is making, not just here but in multiple places in the Gospels: Nothing—not behavior, not theology, not worship style—nothing matters to Jesus as much as the way you demonstrate love to the weak and helpless and wounded.

So why is that important on this sad Sunday?

I saw a man on my TV held down and shot to death in the street.
I watched a man on my laptop as he bled to death in his car.
I’ve seen the aftermath of police officers killed while guarding a peaceful protest in response to these two deaths.

The question I’m faced with now is this: Am I going to cross the street to avoid these tragedies, or am I going to look for some way to help?

I have the voices of my black brothers and sisters in my ear, desperately and persistently reminding me that these are neither the first nor the last black men who were killed by police while going about their daily business. I hear the stories—though I can never fully enter them and experience them—I hear the stories of what it feels like to be black and know that armed law officers see your teenage sons as criminals first and humans second. I feel the guilt at the idyllic life my own teenaged son has in front of him. He will never be pulled over and searched and humiliated because the color of his skin.

Am I going to cross the street to avoid these interruptions to my own busy life, or am I going to look for some way to help?

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a holy dare—it’s a slap in the face and a challenge from the Savior of the world to get off our collective rear ends and do something. It’s a cautionary tale about walking by when someone is dying in the street—or bleeding to death from a wound he didn’t deserve. No one wants to be the priest or the Levite in this story, crossing the street to keep our shoes clean. I don’t want to walk by, either, not when I claim to love and follow someone who died from a wound he didn’t deserve.

To walk by is to approve, it’s as simple as that. To walk by is to pass on an opportunity to use our status and influence and privilege to make something right that never should have been wrong in the first place.

Psalm 82 is also a part of this Sunday’s lectionary. Brace yourself. This psalm is a direct challenge to complacency, right from the get-go. Listen.

2 “How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
3 Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
4 Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Consider this the benediction to the story of the Good Samaritan. How long will you throw your weight behind the perpetrators of injustice and wickedness? Because make no mistake, walking by is just another way of condoning what’s going on right in front of you.

The call to action—the call to faithful discipleship—the call to each one of us is to defend the weak and fatherless; take up the cause of the poor and oppressed; rescue those who have no power to rescue themselves; and literally to move them out of the path of those who would roll right past them or over them.

The point of Jesus’s story is that if an unclean outcast can be the embodiment of God’s love and compassion, how much more is expected of a safe, comfortable, privileged, redeemed child of God?

If I were preaching this Sunday, that’s what I would say. The real question I’m asking now is this: Would I really do any of this? Would you?

Whose Lives Matter?

I write this in the shadow of two more contested shootings of a black men by police officers. There is video of both—troubling and haunting as they show the last few minutes of a person’s life—it appears that one man was largely subdued when the shooting took place, and the other was sitting in a car complying with a policeman’s request to show ID. Now full disclosure here: One of my closest friends from childhood just retired after 20+ years of service as a police officer in our hometown. I believe that the men and women who protect our streets do a dangerous and mostly thankless job, and that they deserve to go home at the end of each shift. I know that there is often more to these stories than first appears, but I also know that not all police officers are like my friend.

Last week I was in St. Louis for a gathering of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). It’s one of the perks of being a seminary president that I get to attend conferences like this one—the ATS is the accrediting body for seminaries and other institutions that train Christian and Jewish leaders. For the most part it was a very positive experience—governance wonks are rarely the life of the party, but these were good people of faith doing important work. Not much more you can ask for.

Turns out that our ATS meeting place was just a few blocks from where the Dred Scott decision originated, and a mere 13 miles from Ferguson, where a young black man was shot and killed by a policeman in 2014.

The close proximity to two ugly chapters in American race relations created space for our gathering of Christian and Jewish leaders to reflect on what it means to prepare women and men for leadership in such a troubled context. On the final day of the conference there was a plenary panel titled “Theological Education After Ferguson,” which was helpful and deeply moving for me.

One interesting part of the event was a discussion of the Black Lives Matter protest movement, which emerged after an unarmed black teenager was killed in Florida by a civilian who was patrolling his neighborhood. The whole idea that someone feels the need to say that black lives matter is still foreign to me, but I’m a 53-year-old white guy. That’s no crime, of course, but neither is it much of a vantage point from which to understand what it means to be black in these United States. That it needs to be said—that we need a reminder that the lives of our black neighbors matter—should break our hearts. It should compel us, like the leaders in the Old Testament, when faced with their complicity in the brokenness of their community, to wail and tear our clothes and cover our heads with ashes. But that’s not the response that’s getting through.

Too many white Americans try to evade the message that black lives matter.

How? Well, many police officers react by saying blue lives matter, too. More broadly I hear people say that all lives matter, appearing to agree with the protestors, but really trying to gut the protest of its content and context. Saying that all lives matter, which should be true on its face, negates the experience of millions of black Americans all over this country. Why?

Because unlike the lives of our black neighbors, the idea that white lives matter in America has never been broadly or functionally in doubt.

For six years I worked on the fundraising staff for Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. Each year we would design direct mail campaigns to bring in donations to support our work. We would test different stories and pictures to see which would spark the most generous response, and since 80% of our guests were black, we always tried to be faithful to represent the people we actually served. The problem was that the picture which brought in the highest level of giving, every year, was a stock photograph of an old white man.

White lives have always mattered in this country, but that’s not been the case for black Americans.

The Dred Scott decision of the US Supreme Court stated that black people did not legally exist in America. After years of slavery and a dangerous century of freedom, life is still a stacked lottery for too many black Americans. I have no idea what that pain is like. Black-on-black crime is bad enough, but when the legal system has been against you and you can’t even begin to trust that your kids are safe with the local police, that’s a kind of fear and anger that I will never know. I hadn’t grasped the bitterness and frustration that the statement, “all lives matter” caused for black men and women until I listened to the panel discussion in St. Louis.

Now we’re faced with two more shooting deaths of black men by police officers. How do I face my friends who fear for the lives of their kids, simply because they aren’t white? How do I help my son understand the unintentional and unmerited privilege that he enjoys, and inspire him to make sure his generation does a better job of this than mine is doing?

I wish I knew the answers to those questions, and to the others I’m too ashamed to ask in writing. All I can say for sure is that Jesus doesn’t want it this way, and in that statement I find my marching orders as a Christian and a pastor and a teacher.

The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, rooted as it is in in the aftermath of another tragic death, has to break us and remake us into people who love our neighbors—even when we think they’re our enemies—and reach out to the hopeless and marginalized. Of course all lives matter, especially to Jesus, but in our society that’s not the way it works just yet. And so it’s good and right and our holy responsibility to affirm that black lives matter, at least until it’s true.

Christians and Independence Day

(This was originally published on an earlier blog in 2009. It resonates still as a message for Christians on American Independence Day.)

What follows is a bit of a rant about the relationship between Christian faith and American patriotism. That may seem like old news or a closed topic to some of you, but I’m getting the feeling that it’s about to make a comeback. I write this as someone with ties to both camps, as an American and a Christian, and also as an historian of the relationship between the two. Mark Noll introduced one of his books by saying that he was writing as a ‘wounded lover,’ and I think I’m beginning to understand what he meant. With that said, here goes.

I’m proud to be an American.

There, I said it. That may be one of the most unpopular things a guy can say these days, especially when he lives outside the US.

I love the country that gave me birth and provided a place where I could meet Jesus freely and without fear of persecution. I love the ideas that illuminated the Founders and drove them to the truly audacious conclusions that became our Constitution. I love the size and diversity and complexity of the place, and the way that, at its best, it welcomes newcomers eagerly and with the expectation that they will bring some new and necessary ingredient to the table. I’m proud, hopefully in an appropriate way, to be an American. Now that doesn’t mean I think the place is perfect or above criticism…far from it. The resources and ingenuity and freedoms of this country mean that we may have even more of a responsibility to be just, generous and humble. It’s on these items that we might be judged most harshly; it’s in these precise areas that we fail most often.

Being a Christian and an American is a difficult dance sometimes. Some of my friends think it’s impossible to be both, that the exploitive and violent acts in our history mean that the nation’s legacy has to be abandoned along the way to mature discipleship. Others see the same events and practices and arrive at the opposite conclusion. ‘America is God’s chosen and ordained nation,’ they say, ‘the greatest force for good in the history of the world.’ To be an American, they might say, necessarily includes being a Christian.

The ‘America-as-villain’ point of view is easy to find these days, but check this out if you’re not convinced about the ‘America-as-New-Israel’ orientation. There’s a new edition of the Bible that is targeted at American Christians who believe that God has set the USA apart from all other nations in the history of the world. This reframing of the Scriptures, called The American Patriot’s Bible (Thomas Nelson Publishers), is just the latest in a long line of attempts to position American history (which I love) in a narrow understanding of God’s plan for his creation (which I reject).

So let me get this straight. The choices appear to be to see America as the pinnacle of God’s work among the nations, tied inextricably to his plan for the world, or to dismiss the nation as so bloated and sinful and deviated from holy purposes as to be beyond the pale. Hmmm…

I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to disassociate from both of these positions.

Instead I talk a lot to Christians about balancing our responsibilities as citizens with our deeper identities as followers of Jesus. I was raised to be proud of my country, and when I was old enough to choose for myself I found that didn’t change. As a historian I know that there are episodes in our past that erode our image and faithfulness to our values, but unlike stone, that erosion is repaired quickly by the generosity and courage of other Americans. For every injustice there are multiple examples of people who work for fairness and the marginalization of tyranny. For every corrupt politician whose indiscretions dominate the news, there are hundreds of public servants who do the right thing…even if they could earn far more in the private sector.

I suppose the point here is that I have been reminded lately that the idea of America is a living thing—it heals its own wounds and renews its own depleted energies through the commitment and creativity of its citizens. Completely apart from religious belief, there is something unique and special about the inception and development—and even the future prospects—of the United States.

What really matters about America is the network of new ideas that formed its foundation. Bernard Bailyn, one of the great historians of American history, said this about the creators of the American Constitution in a series of lectures that later became the book, To Begin the World Anew (2003).

“We know for certain, what they could only experimentally and prayerfully propose, that formal, written constitutions, upheld by judicial bodies, can effectively constrain the tyrannies of both executive force and populist majorities.

“We know, because they had the imagination to perceive it, that there is a sense, mysterious as it may be, in which human rights can be seen to exist independent of privileges, gifts, and donations of the powerful, and that these rights can somehow be defined and protected by the force of law.

“We casually assume, because they were somehow able to imagine, that the exercise of power is no natural birthright but must be a gift of those who are subject to it.

“And we know, what Jefferson so imaginatively perceived and brilliantly expressed, that religion—religion of any kind, secular or revealed—in the hands of power can be the worst kind of tyranny…”

All of that is great. I loved re-reading it and writing it for you because I believe it and hope to pass it on to my son as he develops his own ideas of what it means to be an American. But the awareness and careful stewardship of my American-ness is has to be balanced—overshadowed, even—by my core identity as a follower of Jesus Christ. I think I should say that in a more declarative way.

My identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

Why go into all of that?

Because some of my American Christian friends are starting to sound a bit shrill in their complaints about the direction of their country. They picture themselves as patriot-heroes, but in reality they’re (mostly) middle-aged, middle-class professionals dreaming of a new Revolutionary War. Each new edition of the Drudge Report sends them to new levels of panic and anger. Taxes? Too damned high. Gun control? Some gibberish about their ‘cold, dead fingers.’ Cooperation with other nations? No! Only America’s interests matter!


They talk about intrusive government and the gay lobby, and they rail about Communism just like their dads did. I’ve heard some talk about panic in the streets and a brewing revolution in ways that used to be caricatured in films and TV shows about skinheads and other crazy radical groups. Some worry constantly that between homosexuality, Islam and Barack Obama, America is going to hell in a handcart.

What calms me is the reminder from Dr. Bailyn that the idea of America is based on restraint and the rule of law. The idea of America—which is really its core essence—will survive the attempts of the good and the not-so-good to steer it off its path.

What gives me a sense of peace is the more important reminder that my identity as an American resides as a distant second to my standing as a redeemed child of the living God.

What is sad to me, though, is that some of the people most likely to affirm that last statement are also among the most likely to be threatened by what it means.

Because if we’re honest and faithful (in addition to being historically and biblically accurate), then our allegiance to Christ subsumes or even replaces all other allegiances, including the one we used to pledge every morning at school. Throwing our eternal weight on the one who made us, redeemed us and sustains us is a higher, bigger and more important thing than any earthly citizenship. To believe differently is to miss the point not only of the Christian faith, but also of what it means to be American.

Of course there were strong Christian influences on the founding of the United States, but it’s so important to know that the Christianity practiced in those days would be virtually unrecognizable to contemporary evangelicals. Evangelical Christianity as we might know it doesn’t really emerge until 1740 or so, and without any effective mass media it takes almost a century for Christianity to become the dominant cultural influence in America. People toss around the term ‘Deism’ as if it described just another variant of the Christianity they would find at their church. From that faulty foundation too many will build a continuity of faith and practice between then and now which simply does not exist.

Why is that important? Because the result is a misunderstanding not only of what was present at the founding, but also a near complete misreading of what is under threat today. Some of my friends will lament the growing dominance and acceptance of lifestyles which might not align with how we read our Scriptures. But they miss the point when they equate a loss of Christian control or influence over American politics with a decline of Christianity in America.

The two were never—nor were they ever meant to be—one and the same.

The strong link between Christian faith and American political life left us with a generation, oddly enough, of conservative American Christians so dependent on their influence in politics that they ended up (get this) too lazy to compete in their own religious free market. What a shame.

Now they perceive a new president’s liberal vision as being imposed on them from the outside, when the fact is that all partisanship should have been seen that way. As Christians we should hold all political and national loyalties lightly, not least to prevent us from mistaking them for the one loyalty we should hold above all others. The complaints I’m hearing about the threat to Americanism are sadly much louder and heartfelt than any complaints I’ve heard about the nation’s treatment of the poor, or the lack of biblical literacy among many Christian adults and children, or for any unrepentant sinner who hasn’t yet heard a credible expression of the gospel.

For Christ’s sake—seriously—for Christ’s sake! How can any Christian complain, say, about the loss of the freedom to own an assault rifle when people are living lives apart from the good news of Jesus Christ. Just what, exactly, is so evangelical about that?

Bernard Bailyn was right when he talked about religion in the hands of the powerful as “the worst kind of tyranny.” That makes the shrill complaints of today’s frightened American evangelicals even more hollow. It’s not really tyranny that they fear, but rather, in too many cases, the loss of their own leadership role in that tyranny.

It should concern us that in discussions about God’s standards for his American faithful, some evangelicals seem more comfortable quoting John Winthrop’s sermon than the Sermon on the Mount. Winthrop, in a 1630 sermon given to his shipmates on the Arbella, said this:

‘For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken… we shall be made a story and a by-word throughout the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God… We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us til we be consumed out of the good land whither we are a-going.’

That ‘city upon a hill’ line is from another, far more important sermon—a sermon for all people, not just Americans. In its original context Jesus said:

‘You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:13-16)


Not much there to support the idea of American or any other kind of national exceptionalism. Not much there to indicate that Jesus was saying: ‘Wait about 1600 years, when my true followers get their country started, and you’ll see how this is really supposed to look.’

Later in the same sermon Jesus clarifies where our true allegiances should be:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’
(Matthew 6:19-24)

When American evangelical Christians (of whom I count myself one) realize that the faith they have inherited, when joined with the resources they control, could be a force for good and freedom that would exceed even that of the entire nation, then we’ll see a real revolution that matters. But as long as there are those among us who would serve two masters, who would trade the redemption of the world for nationalist glory or financial security, we’re going to continue on as if paralyzed somehow.

Patriotism that isn’t shaped and informed and fully yielded to Jesus Christ and him only is doomed to be the very problem it seeks to remedy. Without that crucial level of submission we won’t get any farther, or accomplish anything greater, than a dog chasing its own tail. What a shame.