Jesus, Mary and Joseph! American Christianity’s Shattered Witness

Bill Leonard“Take the Bible: Zechariah and Elizabeth, for instance. Zechariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist. Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.”

That’s how the Alabama state auditor defended U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore as some eight middle-aged Alabama women came forward to accuse Moore of sexually harassing or stalking them when he was 30-something and they were teenagers, the youngest and most graphic at age 14.

Welcome to Advent in America, 2017. Advent, those four weeks before Christmas when Christians declare that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us,” is the church’s witness to Christ’s incarnation, and against our culture’s ceaseless effort to Christianize Black Friday materialism. This Advent, however, the Jesus Story has been sordidly deployed in defense of a political candidate beset by shameful accusations and ineffectual self-righteousness. Note to Alabama Christians: Vote for Roy Moore if you feel you must, but for God’s sake, leave Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of it!

In a Nov. 19 New York Times interview, Brett Pitman, pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., sums up the current religio-political dilemma for congregations in Alabama and the nation: “I have people in my church who are strong liberal-leaning Democrats and strong right-leaning Republicans. Politics in a church is a divider.” Pitman’s words portend the future for churches, not only if Moore is elected, but also if the removal of the Johnson Amendment is finally approved in the tax bill now pending in Congress.

The original amendment, attached to the 1954 tax code, forbids (but seldom enforces) nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing particular candidates. It does not prohibit clergy or laity from speaking out against or advocating specific policies and practices of politicians or government agencies. The new law would permit greater candidate specificity and the possibility that churches become tax shelters for direct campaign funding. Approval promises to divide congregations over which candidates are “Christian” or at least supportive of “Christian agendas,” perhaps giving dangerous new meaning to the words of the Advent hymn, “how still we see thee lie.”

Various religious groups have offered opposition to abolishing Johnson, including the witness of our friends at the Baptist Joint Committee for (real) Religious Liberty who warn that weakening the amendment “would divide [faith] communities and distract from their mission.” Yet other Christians demand the right to politicize their congregations to the max, implicitly connecting Democrat or Republican policies and politicians into their confessional identity.

This Advent, the public witness of American Christianity isn’t merely compromised; it is shattered, with Roy Moore’s candidacy and the U.S. Congress among the worst of a great herd of enablers. Odds are that before the last Advent candle is lighted Roy Moore will be elected; and churches can expand their candidate-funding for certified “Christian candidates,” while tightly clinging to state-supported tax exemption and the neo-Constantinian ministerial housing allowance for their state-privileged clergy. “O Mary, don’t you weep, don’t you mourn.”

Amid this shattered koinonia comes the unforeseen yet poignant witness of late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, responding to Moore’s demand that Kimmel visit Alabama, where “we’ll go man to man.” Kimmel agreed to make the trip, but only if the two meet up at a mall food court, “have a little Panda Express” and “talk about Christian values.” Then Kimmel voiced what Alabama Baptists might call his “personal testimony,” telling Moore:

“I don’t know, it doesn’t fit your stereotype — but I happen to be a Christian, too. I made my first Holy Communion; I was confirmed; I pray; I support my church; one of my closest friends is a priest; I baptized my children. Christian is actually my middle name. I know that’s shocking, but it’s true. So if you’re open to it, when we sit down, I will share with you what I learned at my church. At my church, forcing yourself on under-aged girls is a no-no. Some even consider it to be a sin. Not that you did that, of course. Allegedly. But when you commit a sin at our church, at our church we’re encouraged to confess and ask for forgiveness for the sin. Not to call the women you allegedly victimized liars and damage them even more. To confess. But maybe your church is different. I don’t know.”

“Maybe your church is different.” Amid the silence of too many of us “Reverends,” irony of ironies, the church’s witness — its Advent “light in the darkness” — is awakened by a “secular” talk-show host who “happens to be a Christian, too.”

Frankly, Kimmel’s words hit me hard, shaming me and my conscience; hence, this essay. Indeed, his forthright witness chastened me into confessing that while I’ll retire as a professor at Wake Forest University next July, my conscience, by God, won’t file for social or ecclesiastical “security.” I learned that years ago from Roger Williams, on his way to that “shelter for conscience,” Rhode Island, and last week from Jimmy Kimmel, on his way to an Alabama mall.

And in my 71st Advent I heard with new ears the expectant song of Jesus’ own Immah: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

This Advent, one can only hope.

Navigating the church’s engagement with the digital world – Rev. Amy Butler

The times, they are a-changing. This is typically the lament of the elders, a group in which I’m pretty sure I’m now included, and it certainly rings through the halls of every church I’ve ever encountered. Nobody likes change, and especially change to the institutions and experiences that provide structure and stability in a changing world full of upheaval.

One of the ways our society has vastly changed in just the last 15 years has been the creation of an alternative world, a digital world, and we’ve been trying to assess its impact on relationships and institutions ever since we realized it wasn’t going away. The church’s engagement with the digital world is no exception, and per usual we’re falling behind the curve in most cases.

In my world, much discussion has ensued as we try to bring the familiar way we know to be the church into some meaningful engagement with the digital world. Our church has tried to do this in various ways, some more successful than others. One significant way we’ve experimented with has been through livestreaming worship. Though we now have as many or more watching services online as we do sitting in the pews on Sunday, there seems to be a lament about loss of relationship. How do we connect with people who are sitting at home on the couch in their pajamas watching worship through a screen?

Amy and Rose

I’ve found that it’s helpful to approach this strange new world with familiar vocabulary. We all have lived through a time when “evangelism” was the term we used for extending the walls of our churches and inviting people in in new and innovative ways. Using social media, online streaming, and other digital tools to engage an outside world is a new expression of evangelism, plain and simple. By thoughtfully engaging the digital world, the church can and will expand and deepen human connection.

I know this first hand because of an experience I’ve had over the last three years since I came to be senior minister at The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Early on in my tenure as pastor I received an email from a woman named Rose. She wrote to thank me for a sermon she heard online and to offer some reflections of her own. I wasn’t sure when she first wrote whether she was a member of the church whom I hadn’t met yet; in fact, I didn’t know who she was at all. But I answered her email just because I thought it was kind of her to take the time to write.

As it turns out, Rose wasn’t a member of my church after all. I soon gathered that Rose is a very devout Catholic who lives outside the city and somehow stumbled upon Riverside’s services — first on the radio and then via livestream. For three years she has sent me occasional emails — usually once a month or so — offering reflections or words of encouragement, sharing questions and spiritual struggles, always thanking me and the church for including her in our corporate worship experience.

When I asked Rose why she wrote to me at all, this is what she said: “For me it is important to validate the gifts of God that I experience through others. Via livestream I have always felt the presence of the Holy Spirit working in you and through you to reach me. As time has passed the connection I feel to you and to Riverside has grown and deepened … which is a great gift from God.”

Last week, Rose and her husband came to church in person for the first time. During the passing of the peace she introduced herself and the hug we shared was hard and full of deep gratitude. In that moment I recognized true relationship, one of the best gifts of being the church together. Our friendship was forged through new and modern digital means, but the bonds were as familiar as a hand clasped at the door or a hug in the narthex or a moment of connection at the communion table. The words of our children singing in worship rang in my head in that moment: “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together!” — even via livestream.




PSALMS 95: 2 …Let us come before His presence with Thanksgiving and make a joyful noise unto Him in song.

I just opened an e-mail from a dear friend calling upon us to commence an oral history of our dear family. This call is extremely timely in an era of disintegrating morality and loss of respect for others. Only when we honor the values given us by our forefathers and mothers do we have a benchmark upon which to anchor our soul. Only when we celebrate the special high points of our common faith can we raise the discourse from the profane to the sacred. God asks us no less and expects a great deal more.

As I bowed my head to lead the family prayer today at the Thanksgiving feast I called on the Lord to grant me the honor that lived in the day, the special meal comprising a long list of great family recipes was prepared with love and forethought and gathered and prepared by our adult daughter. So many great memories of culinary excellence preceded it and each year it grew in perfection. It made it not just another holiday but a sacred event that bound us together and connected us to God’s blessing.

God gives us such a sacred sampler in life, in a week marked by the loss of a dear friend and newspaper editor, and a struggle with healthcare emerged this special moment to connect us again to His great gifts. Yet we often toss these blessings aside and dwell on the worst of times. We linger on mindless tweets that seek to point out the worst in others that seek to separate us from God’s special blessing.

I call today to my many readers to start a special family history pointing out the best in our kin that made us a family, to list the times we have benefited from their skill, love and care and to use at least one example to build a better life that we share with others. In this way we push back the wall of hatred and ignorance that is urged on us by the electronic wizards of our time. Our examples will grow into a sacred text we can share with our family and provide a cushion upon which to build an honorable life. This is David’s special wish and song…a celebration for all time. May God bless and keep you and grant you peace as we honor Him and each other in verse.



Making It Matter* – Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott –

The Rev. Dr. Casey BaggottThe Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott
The Rev. Dr. Casey Baggott is executive minister of the Community Church of Vero Beach, FL.

Matthew 25:14-30

24th Sunday after Pentecost – Year A – November 19, 2017

Responsibility. I don’t know about you, but growing up I had some fairly unpleasant associations with that word. I was responsible for taking the garbage out. I was responsible for walking the dog and cleaning up after him. I was responsible for weeding the flower beds and completing all homework assignments in a timely manner. None of these duties exactly inspired joy or enthusiasm in me. Responsibility became, I suppose, something I would rather not have had.

Maybe I’m not alone. May be that’s why we modern church folk don’t stress responsibility much. We tend to emphasize other reasons for pursuing a life of faith. Following Jesus is not really about any onerous duty, we are likely to tell ourselves. Instead, it will give us peace. It will instill a lasting hope in us. It will heal and nurture and save and comfort. It will benefit us.

But then we come to the lectionary text assigned for us today from Matthew’s gospel, and we run smack into my old nemesis, responsibility. At least, I can’t read the Parable of the Talents without recognizing that taking responsibility is a big component of what Jesus is trying to teach us.

This parable is told as part of a long teaching sequence reportedly occurring near the end of Jesus’ life. A plot to silence him is already underway. The intensity and urgency of his teaching now seems to increase. It’s almost as if Jesus is summing up. He alludes to his impending departure from this world and he cautions readiness in his followers. He advocates alertness and engagement in seeing that his work is carried out in his absence. He tells this parable.

Jesus describes a Master who, as he is about to go away on a journey, summons his three servants, entrusting each with a portion of his assets. To one servant the Master gives five talents, to another he gives two talents, and to the third servant he gives just one talent.

Talents were considerable sums of money. A talent was equivalent to around fifteen years’ worth of wages. I like to envision the first crowds gathered to hear Jesus teach – perhaps simple fishermen, herders, peasants – listening to this parable and imagining themselves taking responsibility for such vast sums.

As Jesus tells the parable, the servant given five talents invests and doubles his assets, as does the servant who receives two. Both took significant risks, both were aggressive. When the Master returned, both were praised, given even more responsibility, promoted, and invited to share the joy of the master.

But the third servant has a different story to tell. You see, he was a cautious, prudent fellow. He has observed that the Master is a tough businessman and will not be pleased if the principle is lost. So, the third servant digs a hole and buries the money in the ground, which was, in fact, a perfectly reasonable thing to do if he did not wish to be liable for any loss. When the Master returns and this servant is called upon to give an account of himself, he says smugly that he is able to return to the Master exactly what was entrusted to him. He can account for it down to the last penny.

Now, maybe he’s expecting that the Master will be pleased that he neither squandered nor risked the Master’s principle. True, no great gain was achieved, but no harm was done, right? The cautious servant must be assuming that the Master will invite him to join his fellow servants in entering into the joy of the Master.

But here comes the twist in the story that must have stunned Jesus’ listeners. Jesus tells them that this prudent, judicious, sensible, practical, careful, cautious man was treated very harshly by the Master. Not only was his single talent taken from him and given to the other successful investors, but on top of that, instead of getting his invitation to the big party, he is unceremoniously thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Now there is a twist you wouldn’t have expected, would you? Just because he was practical and sensible, he’s tossed into darkness? Just because he was cautious and careful, he’s thrown out to weep? Just because he was fearful of failure, he’s consigned to the corner reserved for teeth-gnashers? Who saw that coming?

What’s Jesus trying to say? Could it be Jesus’ way of saying to his disciples, as he anticipates the clash with authorities that will lead to this death, that he plans to go, having entrusted them with his treasure? Could it be his way of telling them that if they bury his message of God’s loving kingdom, that he’ll be very disappointed in them? Could he be declaring that if they have the confidence, the courage, the trust in themselves that he has in them, then they’ll take the wealth of his love, his compassion, his goodness, his righteousness, and they’ll take that wealth into the world to let it multiply?

This isn’t primarily a parable of financial acumen, after all. It’s a parable of faith acumen. Have we been given the treasure of faith? If we have it, we will invest it, not hiding the best of what we have, not being prudent or cautious, not seeking our safety and security above all else. We will demonstrate proper management of the treasure of our faith by taking risks for the sake of spreading and multiplying the good news of God’s love.

Philip Hallie was a professor, philosopher, author, and a sincere student of good and evil. Having studied the worst of Nazi cruelty in all its twisted and horrific dimensions, he turned his attention to radical good. While granting that there is, among many of us, indifference to the hardship and the pain of others, there is also, as Hallie recorded in his book Tales of Good and Evil, the capacity for astonishing self-giving, risk-taking, and rescue-making by some.[ii] What makes them capable of this? Why do some step forward to engage danger on behalf of others, even at enormous personal risk? What fuels the courageous moral passion of these world changers?

Consider Rev. Andre Trocme and his wife Magda, French Protestants who lived in a tiny mountain village called Le Chambon during the Second World War. Along with their fellow townsfolk, they provided refuge and, when possible, escape from the Nazis for Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution. Although the Trocmes and other villagers who shared in this rescue operation were under surveillance, they quietly continued their efforts throughout the war. Ultimately, their investment of personal risk and gospel love yielded an enormous reward. Between 1940 and 1944, the villagers of Le Chambon saved the lives of more than three thousand five hundred Jews, most of whom were children, as well as fifteen hundred others fleeing persecution.

Years later, Magda Trocme was interviewed by those who found it hard to fathom such courage, such risk. She said this about her choices: “Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances where you will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision on your own, not about other people but about yourself. I would not say more.”[iii]

What a fascinating review of a life-changing, life-saving undertaking. Magda Trocme insists the rescue operation in Le Chambon was not about the people they were trying to save, only. It was also about the rescuers themselves. They each had a decision to make. Who would they be? Would they be passive, cautious, self-protective, fearful? Or would they be enactors of Christ’s message of compassion and love – no matter the risk? The villagers of Le Chambon chose the risk. As Christ’s people, that was their responsibility. As Magda Trocme concludes, what more is there to say?

Still, it has to make you wonder…must such risky responsibility-taking be a component of faithful living? I suppose we are not all taught to believe that. Some of us have been led to think that faithfulness and being a good Christian simply amounts to avoiding what is immoral or sinful, heeding all the prohibitions and negative rules like “Don’t do this,” “Don’t do that.” But when you think a bit about how Jesus teaches those who will take up his cross and follow his path, there isn’t so very much said about what not to do. Instead, Jesus has a great deal to say about what must be done in his name: Take my yoke. Follow me. Ask, seek, knock. Feed my sheep. Watch and pray. Let your light shine. Love one another.

When you think of the lives that have mattered by making a difference for you, or for others, aren’t they lives that have risked taking these instructions of Jesus seriously, perhaps at some cost to themselves? Aren’t they people who have responsibly worked to fulfill the most significant and meaningful tasks they could?

I remember a line I once read from Gian Carlo Menotti that said, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.”[iv]

There can be a hellishness to regret akin to darkness and teeth gnashing. Maybe you’ve experienced the harsh regret of lost opportunity, of wasted gifts. Avoiding that regret ought to have us asking ourselves again and again: Do I love deeply enough? Care passionately enough? Give generously enough? Risk greatly enough?

Yet sometimes I look around at our deeply troubled world, our divisions and our distrust and our discouragement, and I’m inclined to think my feeble efforts at resolving things aren’t going to matter much in the whole scheme of things. Even if I had the parable’s equivalent of five talents-full of faithfulness, who am I to suppose my investment of them in the world around me will change anything? Ever find yourself thinking that? Ever think that you’d like some guarantees before you took the risk to care or spent the effort to make a difference?

When we entertain that kind of pessimism, it helps to remember that the message of Jesus, and his love, his compassion, his trust in God’s dawning realm, isn’t something that actually belongs to us. Like the servants in the parable, we’ve not been entrusted with the gospel as if it is a personal treasure we can hoard. It’s only given to us that we might take the responsibility to invest it.

Back in 1876, Johanna (a little girl of ten) was placed in an almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Johanna’s mother had died, and not long afterward, her abusive father deserted the family. Johanna was wild and ungovernable, and she was nearly blind from a childhood eye infection. Her poor vision made reading impossible, limiting her formal education. In the almshouse, she learned lessons in self-sufficiency but little else. There would appear to have been little hope for this girl.

However, after a few years, a young woman named Maggie came to the almshouse. Maggie took an interest in Johanna and took her under her wing. Maggie “moved in the blackness of the almshouse like sunlight.”[v]Maggie grew flowers in her room. Maggie protected Johanna and the other vulnerable little girls. Maggie taught Johanna that while she was not responsible for having been left in the almshouse, she was responsible for the state of her spirit, wherever she was. Maggie was a young woman of devoted faith.

Eventually, Johanna learned about the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and convinced the almshouse overseers to send her there. She enrolled in 1880, and though her rough manners made the going tough at first, she persevered and graduated in 1886, as valedictorian of her class.

After graduation, the director of Perkins School recommended Johanna, who was usually known by her nickname, Anne, for her first job. It would be quite a challenge. She was sent to Tuscumbia, Alabama to be teacher and governess to a seven-year-old blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller.

This newly certified teacher, Anne Sullivan, knew about blindness, anger, and fear through the hardships of her life. But she also knew about grace and redemption and the responsibility to live faithfully because of the love of Maggie Hogan who made the grim reality of an almshouse life bearable and even hopeful for children.

And so, Anne Sullivan began opening a new world to Helen Keller, who eventually authored twelve books, was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, and was one of the first advocates for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Now, most of us know something about the remarkable achievements of Helen Keller. And most of us know the story of her life-long, devoted friend and teacher, Anne Sullivan. But how many of us knew about Maggie Hogan?

Yet, it is almost certainly true that without the simple, faithful, devotion of Maggie Hogan, invested with patience and trust in almshouse orphans, neither Anne Sullivan nor Helen Keller could have known the lives they did and achieved the remarkable things they did.

It might not have appeared that Maggie had been given much to invest. But that’s hard to judge, isn’t it?

What have you got to invest in God’s world and among God’s precious people? If you have a secret stash of talents buried in your backyard today, dig them up, spread them around. Try investing them wherever you spot an opportunity. Use every ounce of what God has invested in you and make it matter.

And what will be the outcome when we take on such investment opportunities? We never know. Others’ lives may be impacted in ways we never foresaw or could have predicted. But there is, according to this parable, a reliable result for us, as investors. The outcome for us is joy – an invitation to know the extraordinary, divine joy of our Master.

Investing for God’s sake, in God’s people… Isn’t that a responsibility we can be honored to take on and enthusiastic to undertake?

What more is there to say!? Amen.

*This post is used by permission from Rev. Dr. Baggott with my appreciation. It was posted on


In Shooting Aftermath, How Can Faith Infuse Our Daily Lives?

In Shooting Aftermath, How Can Faith Infuse Our Daily Lives? | Mitch Carnell, Mass Shootings, Gun Control

As a community of faith, our challenge is to change hearts. That means we must be more relevant to today’s world, Carnell says.

I heard the devastating news of the shooting at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, when I returned home from church.

The horror of that incident is almost too much to comprehend. How can a single individual harbor that much hate? I have no idea.

I am the product of a small town and a small village church where everyone knew everyone. I am also the product of a Baptist church where fellowship is next to godliness.

Although my current church, First Baptist of Charleston, South Carolina, is much larger, worship and fellowship walk hand in hand.

We know that it could happen here. In fact, it did happen here only a few blocks away at Mother Emanuel AME Church. That horror is still with us and remains an open raw wound.

We know why Dylann Roof carried out his massacre. We don’t yet know what the Texas shooter’s motives were. Whatever his motive, we know that he was in a mental health facility in 2012.

When I was in graduate school, I had an apartment which was behind an unrented unit. There was an unsecured connecting door.

After a night that included fending off would be intruders, I resolved to purchase a gun. At some point, I realized that the only person that I would injure with a gun would be myself.

I knew that I could be deadly at close range with a wooden baseball bat; therefore, I bought a baseball bat instead. I knew that another gun was a recipe for disaster. There are too many guns now.

I know the arguments for gun rights. I also know that we cannot just do nothing. We can engage in a reasonable dialogue at the very least.

How does our religious faith impact our day-to-day lives? What action steps can we take as a community of faith to bring about greater safety at home and away?

Of course, we must remain vigilant to any threat. When we see something, we must say something. But we can do more.

Where does our faith fit in this struggle? What do we really believe?

I grew up in a culture of guns, but not in a household of guns. My dad had a 12-gauge shotgun that stayed in the corner for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what happened to it. It disappeared at some point.

Two of my teenage friends were playing with an “unloaded” pistol in their home. The pistol fired, and one brother was paralyzed from the waist down and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Our church employs an off-duty police officer on Sunday mornings. He is usually in the parking lot but parks his patrol car in front of the church.

Our leaders are trying to protect us, and, sadly, it seems to be a necessity these days. But my heart sinks every time I see it. For me, it sends a chilling message.

I am not naïve. We are a downtown church. We must take reasonable steps to protect those who worship with us.

I and three others are greeters. We are not armed nor would I ever want to be. Although we know most of those who enter, we are a historic church with visitors from all over the world.

One of us tries to talk with every visitor, but we know that we miss some. There is a second set of doors that leads to the sanctuary.

These add a little more security, but not much. Our minister is very good about referring troubled members for counseling.

No guns could have prevented the tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. After all, the shooter sat and worshipped with his victims for an hour before launching his attack.

As a community of faith, our challenge is to change hearts. That means we must be more relevant to today’s world.

We must defeat hatred and disrespect for others. We must make it a priority to make friends. We must find a way to let our faith infuse our daily lives. We must ask ourselves, “What does it really mean to be people of faith?”

Our local newspaper ran a feature article based on the question, “How Can Your Faith Contribute to Better Race Relations?”

Perhaps it is time to ponder a different question: How can our faith create a more harmonious environment and reduce the violence in our culture?

If every congregation would open a dialogue on that topic, we might begin to make some progress. There are no easy answers, but we must diligently search for those that are consistent with our faith.

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