Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Podcast Episode 12- The Jesus Question

A new episode of The Truth As Best I Know It Podcast is now live.

We're continue our journey through Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith with “The Jesus Question”.
We talk about differing conceptions of Jesus, casting Jesus in our own image, the variety of things the New Testament says about Jesus, and how the way we answer the question “who is Jesus” tells us a lot about our theology and about who we are.

You can listen to the episode on Podbean (the gracious hosts of our podcast), or download it on iTunes. If you're an iTunes subscriber, please take a few minutes to rate our show and write a review!

For those that may not have seen it, here is the scene from Talladega Nights we reference in this episode:

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Guest Blogging- Sunday Sermon

This week I've been invited to guest blog on GoodPreacher.com's Homiletical Hot Tub.

If you're not a member of GoodPreacher.com (and if you're a pastor, you should be- it's full of great resources), you can read what I wrote below.

This is the sermon I preached on the final Sunday of our Capital Campaign, "Bethlehem on the Rise". The title is "Sun Rising", and it is based on Genesis 1:3-5 and Matthew 5:14-16.

We just read from the first of two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. The one we just read from was probably composed in the form we have it about five centuries before the time of Jesus, and it is this beautiful liturgical song of praise about how God took the primal chaos and shaped it into the amazing created order that we see in the world today. This story has been around for at least twenty five hundred years, and it still takes our breath away.

Unfortunately, in our time, some of the beauty of this story has been clouded over because, for a couple centuries, Christians of different stripes have kept trying to turn the creation stories of Genesis into something they’re not, and we’ve done some damage to ourselves in the process. The generations of folks who passed down this story verbally from generation to generation, and eventually wrote it down had what we now call a “pre-scientific” understanding of the universe. For all they knew, the earth was flat and everything in the sky revolved around the earth. They weren’t dumb by any stretch of the imagination. They talked about who God is and how God works using of their best understanding of the shape of the universe and our place in it.

But over time that understanding began to evolve. In the sixteenth century we see a Polish priest named Nicholas Copernicus who also happens to dabble in mathematics and astronomy realizes that it isn’t the sun that revolved around the earth, the earth actually revolves around the Sun! About a generation later, an Italian guy named Galileo Galilei, who is also a faithful Catholic, says the same stuff and a lot of people start to think that there’s something to this.

Sadly, these brilliant men and their ideas didn’t exactly get a positive reception. They were called heretics and Galileo was actually dragged to Rome and tried by the Inquisition as a heretic. The church (and I’m talking about all churches: Catholic, Methodist, everyone) is and always has been a human institution, and in many of these critical moments we have succumbed to that most basic of human flaws: fear. Fear of change. Fear of new knowledge that might threaten the established order and our power in it. Fear of the unknown. Too often we reject new ideas and understandings because we are afraid and we only see the negative possibilities, and we miss out on the potential they bring.

Today’s theme in our worship is the “Sun Rising”, and the evolution in our understanding of what the Sun is, and in turn, what our place in the universe is, serves to remind us who we are and who God is. The very phrase, “watching the Sun rise” implies that we are standing still and that everything revolves around us. But if you’ve ever been on a beach or on top of a mountain and watched the Sun rise, you’ve probably been struck by how big this world is, and how small we are in comparison. As scientific discovery has shown us that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that even the Sun revolves around the center of our galaxy that is just one of billions in the universe, we’ve seen that truth again. We are not the center of the universe! We’re actually quite small in the grand scheme of things! We are not ultimate: God is. And the God who is ultimate, the God who is the center of the universe, cares deeply about each and every one of us. Little ‘ol you, and little ‘ol me are of sacred worth because we are created in the image of our great big God.

Perhaps this lesson about humanity’s place in the universe is also a word to our community today. We’re raising money right now to build a new church home. We’re in the midst of doing something really important, and any time we’re doing something important we can easily get stressed and blow things out of proportion and succumb to fear. So when that stress hits, when that fear is right in our face threatening to swallow us whole, let us remember our place in the created order. That amazingly beautiful, sacred piece of property on Gholson Road is but a speck on this Earth, this planet that revolves around the Sun, which is one of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is but one of billions, or more likely, trillions of galaxies in this universe.

We don’t have to worry, because the fate of the cosmos does not hang on what we do here! We are important, but we are not ultimate. God is the center of the universe. God is ultimate.

Jesus tells us we are the light of the world, and to let our light shine. Just as we are not at the center of the created order, neither are we the source of that light. We are not the light of the world because of some innate goodness on our part. We are the light of the world because we are created by God, the God who actually spoke light into existence! We are not the source, we merely reflect the source of this light. So all we have to do is be what we are. Jesus tells us to let our light shine before people so that they may see it and praise the God who is ultimate, the God who is the center of the universe, the God who is the source of the light we shine.

So let us build our new church home, and let us attract some attention as we do it. Not for the purpose of being satisfied with the works of our hands, but to direct attention to the source of that light that is within us, so that all may see and praise the God who said “let there be light”. Saints of Bethlehem, let it shine.

In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Some Hope on a Sad Day

Forty seven years ago today, one of the greatest preachers of all time gave perhaps the greatest sermon in the English language. The best part is that the last, most famous section of "I Have a Dream" was unscripted. King had used the phrase before, but it took on a life of its own on this day.

Sadly, today on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and others are holding a blasphemous rally in an attempt to hijack the legacy of Dr. King. I'm not watching it, because as you can probably tell, I already have too much fuel for the judgmental spirit that too often takes over me.

Intstead, I'm feeding my soul with something more positive today. I hope you'll join me in turning off the cable news and spend a few minutes soaking in the words of a true prophet.

It doesn't matter if you've never seen this before or if you've seen it hundreds of times. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s words never fail to inspire.

Amen, Dr. King. Amen.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg on Islamaphobia and Hypocrisy in America

"This whole issue will go away after the next election. This is people trying to stir up things, to get publicity, and trying to polarize people so they can get some votes"

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Michael Bloomberg
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

Well said, sir.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Guest Blogging- Wednesday

I'm guest blogging this week over at GoodPreacher.com's "Homiletical Hot Tub", sharing about my weekly sermon preparation process.

If you're not a subscriber to GoodPreacher.com (and if you're a pastor, you should be), you can read what I wrote below.

On Tuesday night our church holds our Roundtable Pulpit gathering at a local Starbucks to discuss the passages and themes for the coming Sunday. You can read more about our collaborative preaching process here.

It would be difficult if not impossible to replicate the entire conversation. And any attempt to do so would violate the “safe space” spirit we’ve cultivated for these gatherings, so what I will share is a slightly expanded form of the notes I took during last night’s conversation.

As a side note, my exegetical work and notes from the Roundtable conversation usually stay in handwritten bullet points in my notebook. This is the first time I’ve ever tried to make coherent paragraphs out of them. I’m not sure what kind of difference this new experience will make in the final product, but I’ll let you know at the end of the week.

Without further ado, here are some highlights of last night’s Roundtable Pulpit conversation on Genesis 1:3-5 and Matthew 5:14-16, and the theme of the “Sun Rising”.

We are supposed to be the light of the world, but what if our light is somehow dimmed or tainted? God is the source of the light, and any marring of that comes from us or those around us, life circumstances, etc.

Light illuminates other things, but also draws your attention to its source. We are to be like a mirror, reflecting the light of Christ, but ultimately calling attention away from ourselves and giving the glory to God. Drawing attention to our deeds but effectively giving God the glory is very hard do to, and this kind of humility is never perfected.

Physics has taught us that we can’t see anything without light bouncing off of it, and the way we perceive things like colors is due to how things filter and refract light. What do we filter out and what do we let through? What kind of a prism are we?

There’s something significant about the light and dark being separated at the beginning of creation. The idea that “we all start off in darkness” can be taken in multiple ways. Theologically, some people believe that one only “sees the light” at a specific moment, at which time they become “saved”. We can also understand it in terms of being in the womb, and when a baby comes out there are bright lights, so it shuts its eyes and screams because it has no idea what is going on.

Regarding sources of light, why are we drawn to them? When we have a campfire, why do we sit there and watch it dance, as if transfixed? We don’t usually build a fire unless it is dark, but a fire takes on a life of its own and we don’t know which way it will go next. Fire also purifies. It is how we separate elements like silver and gold to make jewelry.

When our new church building is being constructed, it will literally rise (gradually) from the ground up. It will attract lots of attention, and there will probably be a number of visitors who come because they are curious and want to see what we’ve built. Our challenge will be to direct their attention toward the glory of God and not to be too proud of what we have made with our hands.

Our understanding of the sun has evolved over the centuries. For a long time we thought the earth was the center of the universe. Then we learned that the earth revolved around the sun, and later that even the sun wasn’t stationary, but revolved around the center of a galaxy that is merely one of billions in the universe. Even though it took the church a few centuries to catch up to this evolving scientific knowledge (in many ways we’re still catching up), we have a better understanding of our place in creation and how we are not the center of it all.

We could easily have carried on this conversation for much longer, but at the end of the designated hour we closed with prayer. Over the rest of the week I will be distilling all of this into one core idea, and build the sermon around that. Friday is designated as “sermon writing day”, and hopefully I’ll share some kind of outline by then.

Until then, thanks for reading. Blessings to all you pastors out there crafting your messages for Sunday!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Seven Years Ago Today

I went to orientation for Vanderbilt Divinity School, and while playing a "People Bingo" game, I met a very attractive fellow first year student.
I tried to be smooth, but she saw right thorough me. A few days later, for reasons unknown, she agreed to go out on a date with me. The rest is history.

We've been "Dancing in the Minefields" ever since, and there's no one I'd rather spend my life with. I love you!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Homiletical Hot Tub- Monday

I'm guest blogging this week over at GoodPreacher.com's "Homiletical Hot Tub", sharing my weekly process of composing a sermon for each Sunday

If you're a subscriber to GoodPreacher.com (and you really should be, it's full of great preaching resources), you can read the first post here.

For those who aren't subscribers, here's what I wrote (hopefully I won't get in trouble for sharing subscriber content on my site)

Hello, friends. My name is Matt Kelley, and I’ve been asked to blog about my sermon writing process this week here in the Homiletical Hot Tub.

I practice a model of collaborative preaching that is partially based on the work of one of my seminary professors (more about that in a minute), so I follow a weekly schedule for the whole process to work properly along with all the other demands of parish ministry.

First thing’s first. I’m the pastor of Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. Last year we lost our historic church building when a bolt of lightning hit our steeple and burned the building down. During the last year we’ve been engaged in a process of revisioning and planning for the rebuilding, and during the month of August we’re conducting our capital campaign to raise funds for a new church building.

The theme of our campaign is “Bethlehem on the Rise”, and each of the worship services this month has had a theme of something rising. For August 29, the theme is “The Sun Rising”, and the scriptures, sermon, music, etc. are all chosen to fit this theme. So the two passages our capital campaign team picked for this Sunday are Genesis 1:3-5 and Matthew 5:14-16.

On Monday I do my exegetical work. I always use the, a set of which I have at home. I also consult other resources, depending on the passages and themes for the week. This week I also consulted the Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 1: Genesis 1-15  and Detrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, since it contains and extended meditation on the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and David N. Mosser’s The Stewardship Companion: Lectionary Resources for Preaching.New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary

I usually also consult a variety of online resources. There’s a wealth of good stuff here on GoodPreacher.com, as you probably already know. It’s all divided up according to the Revised Common Lectionary, but if you’re preaching from different texts, go to Vanderbilt’s Lectionary Website, type in the passage(s) you’re using in the search bar, and it will tell you when and where it occurs in the RCL. If you are following the lectionary (as I usually do), Journey with Jesus is another great site.

Using the resources mentioned above, and knowing I’ll need to incorporate the themes of Sun and light, and somehow tie that into giving money for our new building, here is my Monday exegesis.

Genesis 1 is part of the first of two creation stories that begin the Bible. The first creation story is generally credited to the Priestly source (read more on the 4 source theory for Genesis here), and may have been composed in its present form as late as the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (5th century BCE). It’s important to remember that this text represents a pre-scientific world view, so it should not be judged by post-Enlightenment standards of fact. God creates the light on day 1, and the Sun on day 2, suggesting that the ancients saw light as having a divine origin, the Sun being one of many luminaries placed in the sky. The sun goes away at night and returns in the morning, making each day a new creation, filled with possibility.

Jesus also talks about the concept of light in the Sermon on the Mount. He talks about it in two contrasting ways. Calling his followers “the light of the world”, Jesus may be highlighting that the purpose of light is not for itself, but for other things to be illuminated. Light points to something beyond itself. However, in the very next breath Jesus calls his followers “a city on a hill”, which certainly does draw attention to itself! The idea that the works of disciples of Jesus are to be seen stands in tension with other sayings about doing things “in secret” (ex- Matthew 6:3). These tensions should not be seen as “contradictions”, but as illustrative of the very real tension that followers of Christ experience in striving to live in such a way that points beyond themselves to the greatness of God.

Bohoeffer points out that disciples are not told to “become” or “strive to be” light for the world. Jesus makes the statement in the present tense: “you are the light”. Jesus is telling his followers to be what they already are. The light is a gift of which we are stewards, meant to be shared with everyone and not just those we want to let in. This passage occurs in the context of a teaching to a large group of people, most of whom are curious about Jesus but not yet committed followers. This is not a private teaching to the twelve. The very setting indicates the inclusiveness of Jesus’ gospel and reminds the church that it is not a closed society of the elect, but an ad hoc committee dedicated to the redemption of the entire world.

I have these exegetical insights in a notebook, which I will have with me on Tuesday night at our congregation’s weekly Roundtable Pulpit. We meet at a local Starbucks, and anyone (church members, friends, and complete strangers) is welcome to come and reflect on the texts and themes for the week. I take notes in the same notebook, and have it with me the rest of the week while I’m composing my Sunday sermon.

The title Roundtable Pulpit is unashamedly ripped off from a book of the same name written by John McClure, with whom I had the pleasure of studying at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

A while back I wrote an article on Worship Connection about the collaborative preaching process, and you can read that if you want to know more.

I’ll post again on Wednesday with a summary of our Tuesday night conversation, and again later in the week as I try to put it all together for Sunday.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Belated Thanks

...to all the women who endured scorn and worse to gain the right to vote in this country. Eighty years ago this week, your hard work paid off, and my daughter gets to grow up in a better world because of it.

When Kate votes in her first Presidential election in 2028, her mom and I will make sure she knows who to thank.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Next Week

Next week I'll be guest blogging over at GoodPreacher.com's "Homiletical Hot Tub" (I'll give an honorable mention to whomever comes up with the best "Hot Tub Time Machine" reference for a preaching site).

The texts I'll be working on next week will be Genesis 1:3-5, and Matthew 5:14-16. We're in the midst of our Bethlehem on the Rise capital campaign, and the overall theme will be "Sunrise" for that Sunday.

I'll post the link when it's up.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


In the last episode of our podcast, we talked about the idea of an evolution in humanity's understanding of God being traceable in the texts of the Bible.

There are two really interesting books by Jack Miles that tackle this subject from a literary standpoint. God: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God treat God as a literary character (much like Tom Sawyer or Jack Ryan) and trace his evolution within the biblical text.

A word of caution about these books: Miles is making no attempt at any kind of theological statement. I kept having to push aside my own reactions to some of the things he says about the character named God, who often times seems at odds with the God of the universe that I worship. The assumption that the Bible is one single, coherent narrative is also problematic, but only from a theological standpoint. Setting those issues aside will enable you to really enjoy Miles literary analysis.

These aren't devotional books by any means, but they do give great insight into the many varying, and sometimes conflicting roles the Bible plays to different people.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Big Tent Christianity: Easy to Say, Hard to Do

This post is part of the Big Tent Christianity Synchroblog. All the bloggers involved in this project are answering a very simple prompt: "what is 'big tent' Christianity?"

In a word: hard.

Most of my life I have been called an idealist. Guilty as charged. One of my ideals is that all of God’s children really can find a way to live together in peace. We simply have to choose to do so. Easier said than done, of course. I’m not foolish enough to assume that everyone will actually choose that path, but I believe that they are capable of doing so. That’s the Arminian side of my theological heritage.

It is in the midst this tension between ideals and the tragic reality of human choices that I can’t find anything to say about what “Big Tent Christianity” means to me except “hard”.

It’s hard to make Christianity a big tent when there are so many groups of folks who don’t want to coexist. It’s very hard to keep everybody under the tent when we actively invite our GLBT brothers and sisters to openly claim their sexuality as part of their imago Dei bearing goodness while Fred Phelps and his crew are standing there under the same tent screaming and holding signs proclaiming who is and is not welcome under the tent.

It’s hard to maintain a tent that’s big enough for everyone when people whose passion outweighs their experience are dismissed by others for being too young and/or inexperienced, or for not having the right education or credentials, and are told that they’re second class citizens, if they’re welcome under the tent at all.

I could go on citing examples all day, but I think you get the point.

It’s not a matter of conservative vs. liberal, evangelical vs. emergent, or whatever other labels we attach to people. The real issue is the tendency we all have to stick with those that are like us, and to justify our own existence by putting down and excluding those that are different, whether we have an honest disagreement with them or not.

Practicing Big Tent Christianity means not only welcoming others that are different than us, others whose beliefs or practices might be offensive to us, but opening ourselves up to the possibility of being converted, in some sense, by our interaction and fellowship with them. It means Fred Phelps might have to learn something from the Gay Street Preacher. It means I might have to learn something from Pat Robertson. (that last sentence made me vomit in my mouth a little bit)

Big Tent Christianity is easy to talk about, but very, very hard to practice. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it happen outside of brief, isolated events. Have you ever seen Christianity truly be a big tent over sustained periods of time? If so, please share!

Hard, yes. But not impossible. There I go being an idealist again.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Podcast Episode 11- The God Question

We're continuing our series podcasting our way through Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.

We tackle such weighty subjects as the question of whether God is violent, supersessionism and anti-Judaism, natural theology, and the relationship between Quaker scholar Elton Trueblood and the HBO show, "Trueblood".

You can listen to and/or download this episode on Podbean (whose allegedly embeddable player won't work on Blogger for some reason), or subscribe to us on iTunes.

As always, comments and other feedback are always welcome.

Monday, August 09, 2010


No, not the show from the 80s with Bruce Willis pre- "Die Hard"!

I wrote a guest post over on emergingumc about some recent articles in the New York Times about issues facing clergy and congregations.

Comments are always welcome!

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Thought on Anne

Continuing on yesterday's theme of not commenting on a news story until I've had time to think about it:

Anne Rice recently announced that she was "quitting Christianity" due to all the hatred and hypocrisy she sees in the church. She remains committed to Christ, and even argues that this commitment is why she is leaving Christianity.

She's certainly in good company. Ghandi once said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians." You might be doing something right anytime you can put yourself in that kind of company.

The blogosphere has, predictably, had a variety of reactions. Doug Pagitt is empathetic. Thomas McKenzie challenges Anne to become more mature in her faith. Matthew Paul Turner brings the wonderful dose of snark for which we love him.

I can see where Anne Rice is at. I certainly find the hatred, divisiveness, insecurity, arrogance, and whoring ourselves out to political parties to be very unattractive aspects of the Christian-media-industrial-complex. If that group was the chief spokesman (and they are very male-centric) for Christianity, I'd be wary of staying within the ranks, too.

This is where I'm supposed to make the argument that the Christian faith is also full of wonderful people who are loving and accepting. And that's absolutely true. I even like to think that I'm one of those people! But making that argument tends to descend into the same "us vs. them" camp that makes my skin crawl. The unfortunate truth is that when I use that argument to defend Christianity I'm as bad as the ones that Anne Rice and I reject.

The real situation is that the church is full of people. And people are capable of as much good as they are bad. We wouldn't be able to perform gracious, loving acts if we were not equally able to reject, condemn when it's none of our business, and destroy with no regard for the consequences of our actions. In other words, we bring all of who we are to church. At our best we manifest all the fantastic potential of humanity that Jesus demonstrated. At our worst we embody all the things that Jesus spoke against and died to redeem. Our best and worst exists on individual and collective levels.

The truth is that the church is full of people. The synagogue is full of people, too. So is the mosque, the monasteries of various faiths, and every other gathering of any type of religion. For that matter, the local YMCA, community center, and moose lodge is also full of people. And people bring all of who they are with them. Good, bad, ugly, indifferent.

United Methodist Bishop Will Willamon often says that loving Jesus is easy, but loving those whom Jesus loves is hard. So to reject any group of people, religious or otherwise, is to reject those whom Jesus loves. I don't know if Anne Rice is rejecting Christians (saying she doesn't love them), or simply choosing not to associate with them/us. That's between her and God.

All I know is that God has not given up on humanity. And as much as I want to sometimes, I can't either.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Thoughts on Ted

I'm a bit of a late-comer when it comes to trends in the blogosphere. I tend to want to sit back and let my thoughts marinate for a bit, because when I speak first and think second I usually end up with my foot in my mouth (anyone who knows me will confirm this). I also enjoy hanging back and watching how the conversation unfolds.

Here's a thought that's been cooking for a while:

A lot of folks have been jumping all over Ted Haggard for starting a new church just a few years of getting booted from his mega-pulpit for trysts with a gay prostitute. I actually felt a bit sorry for Ted. I argued then, as I do now, that he was eaten a live by a monster that he helped create: the cult of personality around a charismatic leader. Living in that place for so long causes anyone to start to believe the hype and become someone else.

Case in point:

(methinks the pastor doth protest too much)

I understand people's reasons for bashing Haggard. His words and actions have been incredibly harmful to people in the GLBTQ community. If someone had constantly been attacking me for who I am I would feel no small amount of shadenfreude when they got a taste of their own medicine. And I understand why people are skeptical of him even now, since he still courts media attention, and since may even do a reality series. I get all of that.

And yet something inside me still thinks that he's changed. You can see it in the way he talks about how people need God's grace. It's no longer "them" language. He includes himself. Nowhere was this more on display when he appeared on Larry King talking about Jennifer Knapp coming out of the closet.

Yes, he was all too happy to be on TV again. I imagine a psychological evaluation would reveal that he still has a pretty large narcissistic streak. But as a mentor once told me, "you don't get humility without a lot of humiliation". Ted Haggard has been humiliated, abandoned by people he thought were his friends, and generally kicked in the rear end. Did he deserve much of it? Sure. But I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and keep watching to see how different he is.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Poor Terry Jones

A lot of people are criticizing Terry Jones (myself included, more than once), the pastor of Dove World Outreach Center in Florida who plans an "International Burn the Koran Day" on September 11. The latest round of criticism comes due to his recent less than stellar (or coherent) performance on CNN.

Other bloggers are pondering what has Terry Jones so bent out of shape. To be fair, Terry Jones has had a lot to deal with over the past 2,000 years, what with his son's messiah complex and whatnot.

(For those that don't get the joke, the Terry Jones in the second video is the Oxford educated comedian, director of Monty Python's Life Of Brian - The Immaculate Edition, and has absolutely nothing to do with the ignorant bigot planning this blasphemous act on September 11)