Latest Entries »

We’ve Moved!

Please head on over to my new blogs page to view and interact with this site. These pages will remain visible, but future posts will only appear on the new server. Not only that, if you stay here, you’ll miss the conversations going on there even on the old pages.

You may also want to check out The Narthex, a religion and society magazine where I’ve taken on the role of occasional contributor.


(Sermon from 2014-05-04 at Zion Lutheran Church, Boalsburg, PA)


Grace to you and peace from God our father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


It seems apropos that I was asked to preach today. Not because of something inherent about me, but because of the reason I was asked. In case you slipped in late and weren’t already aware, Pastor Book, along with a sizable contingent from our congregation, are in Washington DC, participating in the Race for Hope, a charity walk and run for brain cancer as Team Zion, honoring the memory of our own Todd Miller who died of brain cancer by helping raise money to find a cure.

As today’s lesson begins, Jesus is risen, but at least in Luke’s account, hasn’t yet made a personal appearance to his disciples. Instead, the community of disciples and close followers is trying to understand the meaning of empty tombs, of prophecies, of angels. In fact, it’s important to hear the first part of the chapter to understand what is happening in the second, today’s gospel.

24:1 Now on the first day of the week, at early dawn, the women went to the tomb, taking the aromatic spices they had prepared. 24:2 They found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb, 24:3 but when they went in, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 24:4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood beside them in dazzling attire. 24:5 The women were terribly frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? 24:6 He is not here, but has been raised! Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 24:7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” 24:8 Then the women remembered his words, 24:9 and when they returned from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 24:10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles. 24:11 But these words seemed like pure nonsense to them, and they did not believe them. 24:12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He bent down and saw only the strips of linen cloth; then he went home, wondering what had happened. (NET)

Here we pick up today’s gospel:

24:13 Now that very day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 24:14 They were talking to each other about all the things that had happened. 24:15 While they were talking and debating these things, Jesus himself approached[.]

These men didn’t know whether to be in mourning or to dance. Mary said an angel had told her Jesus was risen, but all they could verify was that the tomb was empty. Having likely come to Jerusalem for the Passover and stayed over the Sabbath, these two disciples were now heading back to their hometowns.

[He] began to accompany them 24:16 (but their eyes were kept from recognizing him). 24:17 Then he said to them, “What are these matters you are discussing so intently as you walk along?” And they stood still, looking sad. 24:18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have happened there in these days?” 24:19 He said to them, “What things?” “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene,” they replied, “a man who, with his powerful deeds and words, proved to be a prophet before God and all the people; 24:20 and how our chief priests and rulers handed him over to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 24:21 But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. Not only this, but it is now the third day since these things happened. 24:22 Furthermore, some women of our group amazed us. They were at the tomb early this morning, 24:23 and when they did not find his body, they came back and said they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24:24 Then some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.

When a people mourns a loss which is sense-less in the most literal sense of the word, we seek to find some purpose in it or at least decipher its meaning. This is true at the scale of family or friends (as here), congregation (like Zion, at the loss of Todd Miller, whom I regretfully was never able to meet but certainly have gotten to know through the witness of Zion), or even a nation or world (9/11, wars), we want to make sense from the senseless. Jesus (whom they only knew as a fellow Jewish traveler, probably also a pilgrim) must have astounded them with his response:

24:25 So he said to them, “You foolish people—how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 24:26 Wasn’t it necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?”

Now Jesus sounds like the Jesus that the writer of Mark portrayed, the Jesus who often responded to his disciple’s efforts at interpreting current events by saying (in the translation of Greek scholar James Boyce) “You Dundering Dodoheads!” But he followed up how? By continuing to walk with them and interpreting for them.

One of the most powerful songs I have encountered is written by a Christian musician named Ray Boltz. It tells the story of a father walking toward Jerusalem with his two sons to make sacrifice. As they’re walking toward the city, his boys want to know what they will see- so he “tells them of Moses and father Abraham” and then tells them to “watch the lamb” they were to sacrifice, to “make sure it doesn’t run away”. It becomes apparent when they reach the city that something is wrong- and they quickly discover that there is an uproar because the Romans are going to crucify three men, one of them Jesus. Having (unwittingly and unwillingly) witnessed the barbarism and having stood transfixed afterward, lost and decentered, the father feels the tiny hands of his sons holding on to him. Brought back into a sense of time and reality, he hears his sons say “Father please forgive us- the lamb ran away.” The pathos of that moment, the fact that I have not been able to sing that song for 8 years now (ever since I had children of my own), must have been what Jesus walked into here. And it is what the unsuspecting companion of the tragically departed inevitably stumbles upon.

How can we respond in that situation? One way is to do what Jesus does (not the name calling, which was probably more for posterity’s benefit than for those disciples):

24:27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things written about himself in all the scriptures.

The father in our song continues the same way- by returning to the past, and to God’s promises and most of all His provision. “So I told them of Moses and father Abraham, and then I said dear children, watch the lamb.” You see, in the face of an overwhelming present and an uncertain future, there is nowhere to turn but back to what is certain- the history of God’s work and his promises. Think about what you heard in the second lesson today- God helps us through as we continue on the journey. But it was not accidental that the disciples on the road here did not understand. God had “kept their eyes from recognizing” Jesus, for now. Because it often takes wrestling with the unreasonable, the unbelievable, the tragic, to be able to hear the good news for what it is. It takes understanding our brokenness, our sin, to recognize our need for forgiveness. It took death to achieve resurrection.

24:28 So they approached the village where they were going. He acted as though he wanted to go farther, 24:29 but they urged him, “Stay with us, because it is getting toward evening and the day is almost done.” So he went in to stay with them.

Here is the gift of hospitality- the other gift (along with listening and remembering) that can- and must- be offered in the midst of pain and loss. It was not unusual to invite a fellow traveler in this way, but it is evidence that they were listening and hadn’t just turned off their ears (as well as eyes) when Jesus accused them of slowness.

24:30 When he had taken his place at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 24:31 At this point their eyes were opened and they recognized him. Then he vanished out of their sight. 24:32 They said to each other, “Didn’t our hearts burn within us while he was speaking with us on the road, while he was explaining the scriptures to us?”

And here, in the simple bread, and the sacrament, Jesus was made known, and they understood and received what they had been hearing. Communion is hospitality, communion is the shared meal, and communion is the making known. What is learned on the road becomes real in the community, in the church, and in the sacraments. But it cannot be received without the law. Have you ever been “forgiven” by someone you didn’t think you had wronged? It doesn’t heal- because it is out of place.

Thinking again on our brothers and sisters in Washington today, the same thing is happening. Fellow travelers, many come from a distance, and many with stories of mourning to share with others, are coming together. They are ostensibly there to raise money and awareness to help stop brain cancer, but the experience will provide more. It will provide a context for shared identity and understanding between people traveling the same road- not only literally and figuratively. It will provide a context for grace. And it may even provide the impetus for something even greater. I have been a diabetes ally for years because when I was in high school, a nurse who belonged to our church was looking for more counselors for a Type I diabetes camp. I went in knowing nothing about diabetes and came out at least partially understanding their pain and the invisibility of their challenges to most people. So, just like the disciples on the road, and just like Team Miller and Team Zion, I “got up that very hour”, “returned to [my] Jerusalem” and “told what had happened on the road”, how I had seen suffering, forgiveness, and ultimately grace, and how I too recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”

May we all- those here, those traveling, those sick and in pain, every person touched by Zion and Christ’s church throughout the world- may we all have our eyes opened to Jesus in our fellow travelers on our road this week, and may we also be Jesus to our fellow travelers this week who are “debating what has happened” because it is too much to understand. And when we feel lost and alone, may we find hope in Moses and the prophets, and in the grace of God revealed in an imperfect world and perfected through Jesus Christ.


A third place (coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg) is the next place in our lives after our home and work. Socially, they tend to be informal, fluid, and spontaneous gathering places like coffee shops, bookstores, and bars. They are important because they tend to be democratizing (people from all walks come together), accessible, and welcoming. If you want to know a little more about them, I suggest you take a look at the Sentralized blog.

The blog post above makes a pretty good argument that congregations ought to invest some energy in engaging third places. Many in fact do. One pastor I know has office hours in a coffee shops. Many emerging congregations have regular theology pub nights, where members and friends of the community get together for informal discussion that may or may not be explicitly religious.

But I see at least two other ways a congregation can (and maybe should) try to engage this idea of third places:

1) In addition to engaging outside third places, the church can try to create third places. People do try this fairly often with coffee shops, Christian bookstores, Christian Science reading rooms… the problem is that it’s difficult to figure out how to be “Christian” and still be 100% welcoming, democratizing, fluid, open, and grounded in the community. When congregations fail at this, they end up only making the clubbishness more extreme by giving Christians more options to segregate themselves from the rest of their communities.

2) Some congregations take engagement even farther and become third places themselves. This includes crossover congregations like Luther’s Table in Renton, Washington- a brilliant little cafe that doubles as a church and gathering place at certain times during the week. But it doesn’t necessarily take that kind of double identity, nor is that ever likely to be the experience of most Christians. When congregations roll back some of the formality, schedule, and showmanship to make worship and fellowship more interactive and open, they can encourage a different kind of connection.

It’s like the difference between being welcoming to families with children by offering a nursery (so kids won’t mess up the experience for everyone else) and smiling at kids as they run into worship to sing along and then disappear to read Bible stories in the next room, only to reappear and cuddle up during the sermon. The second way will screw up your church and make it look less like you, but it helps create the kind of openness that might connect with someone who wasn’t sure exactly what they feel.

I won’t say more, except to invite your own reflections and engagement on the idea of decentering church from ourselves and being the third places in our own communities. As Christian fellowships, we are not called to be the same thing as a coffee shop or bar, but to consider how we can be Jesus in our communities. Part of that means reconsidering how we enable people to partake and share, and how our identity can form something which moves from welcoming to engaging.


Lk 2:15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

“And he was called Jesus”- It doesn’t seem like a very dramatic conclusion to the nativity story. After all the angels and long journeys and wise men and shepherds, you might even say it seems downright anticlimactic.

Naming a child, after all, is for us at best a kind of release. For example, many children are named after a recently deceased relative; it can provide some closure as families work through grieving while honoring the relative. Or, like was the case for my son Kylen, a child might not have a name for hours, days, or even longer after being born and it is a release just to be able to finally settle on something that fits. But throughout the Bible, names and naming have a far greater significance than this.

We find a major clue in the word for the action itself: to call. Just as in English, the word call means both “to name someone or something” and “to beckon, request, or require something from someone.” When people are named in the Bible, “very often, the emphasis is… less on the fact that names are such and such, than on the fact that the bearers of the name actually are what the name  says about them” [kaleo, BDAG]. When your parents named you, they may have tried to find something with a positive meaning that they hoped you would live up to; but when God names you, when he calls you, the naming itself is effective in accomplishing it.

Counselors, colleges, even reemployment programs all like to talk about callings, taking the other meaning, as those things we do outside our homes to earn money to provide for family and maybe serve society. That is true in one sense; I am called as a student, a researcher, a writer, a teacher, a father, and husband. And god undoubtedly calls us to all those places. But our new name in baptism, the one we so often ignore is Christian- little Christ-. God calls us into that identity through baptism, not just in the hope that we will become Christians but in the same way he spoke “light” in the beginning and there was light.

View full article »

I realized today (actually it’s more of an emergent process than that, but today put the words on it) that within the next 10 months or so, I need to make an important decision which, although I can adjust as I go, will in all likelihood substantially bias my work for a good chunk of my life: Am I am big R or little r sociologist of religion?

Anyone who knows me can attest to my hesitancy and unwillingness to make this kind of decision; that’s why I have 4 degrees and am only now starting my PhD program and heading for two more. So what do I mean by big and little R?

A little r sociologist of religion concerns him or herself with the gradual accumulation of knowledge, the successive testing of aspects of theory using whatever data and methods are available to them. Most work in the field is of this sort, and much of it is very high quality and useful. The type of articles and books I review on my companion blog sociofaithful fall into this and can be very valuable both to people interested in the functioning of society and churches and to people with a practical interest in ministry. It is easy to collaborate with others, contribute to the growth of the discipline, and publish frequent and (hopefully) meaningful articles using this approach.

A big R sociologist of Religion, on the other hand, is as much a philosopher as a consumer of data. They are more concerned with the development of theory explaining broader phenomena and working across cultures than with the functioning of a specific cultural manifestation of religion, except insofar as it reflects larger concepts in the theory of religion. If dataheads are the pastors of the sociological academy, theorists are more like systematic theologians, trying to synthesize as much as possible to understand in broad strokes both (current and historical) reality and the sea changes that take place from time to time.

Neither approach disregards the other. Big R sociology without data is just speculation and pontification. Little r sociology without theory is devoid of content and falls closer to journalism (i.e. reporting) than knowledge creation. I love both. I can’t get enough good data to satisfy me, because it is the only way to see what’s really going on. But I can’t help but ask bigger questions than survey data analysis can answer. In the end, I will end up as either a theoretically aware quantitative dude or a statistically knowledgeable theory guy, but the two are still worlds apart.

And even though I am nearly 5 years away from the terminus of my program, the decisions start now, because there is not time to study numbers, ideas, languages, and the history of the discipline all to a level of mastery. If I spend my time studying social thought, I have less time to understand the inner workings of the statistics that are the bread and butter of sociological scholarship today. If I care enough about Japan to refresh and improve my skills in the language, what other opportunities am I missing out on? And while there is much of my life yet, Robert Frost touched reality closely in his famous poem of choosing a path:

[I] Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

Even more than that, I will be adjusting to the habit of producing certain kinds of knowledge whose processes are very different. Certainly at Penn State the natural choice would seem to be the little r; our faculty is among the best in the world at thoughtful, relevant, incremental knowledge production. But who am I? Because I am both, but the two identities are held in tension and not allowing one to grow beyond the other would stymie my ability to participate in ongoing conversations and be useful in creating new ones.

And it goes beyond personal identity to personal vocation and theology. Clearly, I have the ability to produce multiple things. My M.A. thesis is an abstract theological proposal; my undergraduate thesis is evaluative number crunching. But I have to ask, what is the role I have been given in the scheme of God’s unfolding design of creation: a (hopefully masterful) craftsman or an intellectual? In what way am I embodying my Jesus, my God in my world? In the end, the decision returns to the missional question, not in a utilitarian way that seeks to maximize some underlying value that can be quantified and tested against others, but in a contextual way that seeks to answer “What am I doing here now?” I appreciate your shared prayers and I would love to offer mine to yours also. Vocation is one of the deepest, most personal, most meaningful and contextual (and thus frustrating and exhilarating to figure out) aspects of a life of faith. Peace to you in your own call.

  There are probably as many ideas as to what it means that mankind was created in the image of God as there are people who believe that we were. Nonetheless, I offer one, courtesy of the following section of a Max Weber essay on objectivity in social science and policy:

“The transcendental presupposition of every cultural science lies not in our finding a certain culture or any “culture” in general to be valuable but rather in the fact that we are cultural beings, endowed with the capacity and the will to take a deliberate attitude towards the world and to lend it significance.” (Methodology of Social Sciences [2011] p. 81)

As opposed to the rest of creation, we have the co-creative capacity to lend the world significance through our value judgments and our actions. By the way, Weber was a polymath who is claimed by sociologists and economists, among others, but he was never to my knowledge considered a theologian. Think about it. That is all.

One of my favorite musicals of all times is 1776. As long as you can look past a bit of bawdy humor, it is a fairly historically accurate portrayal of the events surrounding the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence (aside, of course, from the fact that the Continental Congress was not originally set to music).

It makes me laugh, and it makes me proud of the work that went into creating a new nation by all sides, even those who disagreed with the cause of independency. However, the most inspirational moment takes place when one member of the congress refuses to sign the declaration: John Dickinson.

Let me make this clear: while I respect the concerns of some recent bloggers (for example Kurt Willems) about the morality of the American Revolution, I’m not writing to debate that one way or another.

Back to the story. The decision had been made for the sake of mutual protection of the colonies and the congress that not only must any vote for independency be unanimous of all the colonies, but that no man could sit in the congress without signing his name to the declaration. While Dickinson steadfastly hoped for reconciliation with England and that the colonies would continue as such, he was outvoted by his fellow delegates from Pennsylvania.

Here’s the important part: when the time came to sign, rather than doing something unconscionable to him, he elected of his own free will to resign the congress and join the militia in what he thought was an ill-advised, losing war where he knew (from General George Washington’s dispatches) that soldiers were dying brutally on a daily basis.

Now, as I said, I may disagree with the man, but that kind of courage and principle is rarely seen in any politician. This is in part because it amounts to suicide for one’s career, something Dickinson acknowledged and yet chose to follow through anyway. He was an accomplished man of much reputation who sacrificed not for money or philandery (as is more often the case historically and recently), but for the chance to give his life alongside people he respected.

So why did this land in a blog on Christian ministry? It landed here because Dickinson exemplifies what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call costly discipleship. Both were guided by their ethical and moral principles to take paths that were difficult, unpopular, and would very likely cost them their lives. Christians today are sociologically encouraged by consumerism and an astounding level of choice to choose both a congregation/denomination and a personal theology based not on principle but on what sounds good and “works” for us.

So-called prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen have thrived based on this mentality because really, if presented with an equal choice between being told you are a sinner who needs saving and being told that if you pray hard enough you can be rich and famous, the second option seems more attractive to most. It is only with proper grounding in Biblical reality and a strong sense of ethics that the lie that God wants you to have what you want is exposed.

The oppositional truth to this is more than inconvenient; it is personally demanding. God want you to know his grace and serve his kingdom. Don’t believe me? The second and third petitions of the Lord’s prayer (your kingdom come, your will be done…) seem pretty clear on the topic. So, although it may not have been directly a religious expression, I commend to you his ethical model and Give Ye John Dickinson.

The New Medical tower at Providence Hospital in Everett

Providence Medical Center in Everett (north of Seattle) recently opened an impressive new medical tower, and has been running radio spots touting its impressive emergency room and other services on my favorite news-radio station, KOMO. While I can’t locate the spots online to play for you, the gist is that they spend the first 30 seconds raving about how wonderfully accessible/high-tech/etc the tower is and then… “But without our award-winning staff it’s just a really expensive nifty fancy amazing building” or something to that effect.

While I laud both the effort to offer the highest quality of medical care and the effort to give credit to the caregivers themselves, the ad struck as less than completely true from a sociological perspective. Top specialists and surgeons provide certain skills that are invaluable in the most challenging cases, when diagnosis and treatment can be more challenging than keeping track of the policy violations or wrong decisions in an episode of House. But for the vast majority of patients, it is the culture and sociology of the organization that distinguishes a hospital more than who specifically is doing the treating.

View full article »

Jesus Washing Peter's FeetI usually elect to offer my comments on other people’s blogs either at the blog or in Facebook/Twitter streams. In this case, I need to reblog the entire post.

Here’s why: this describes one of my core goals as a sociologist of religion- to be academically responsible and provide useful understand to real practitioners. I could not have said it better except for making it specific to my own field (the author is in HIV research, not religious research).

This is servant leadership, and it is diaconally oriented in its nature- bridging two worlds and providing the “stuff” necessary to assist others without demanding to be recognized at center stage. I meant to write this; now I can just pass it on to you instead. So please, read the whole entry and comment, here or at orgtheory. I think you will find it a worthwhile investment. Thank you, and Peace.

I am delighted to serve as a guest blogger on I have been meaning to get into the blogging game for quite some time.  I am an avid reader of various blogs, and I always wondered about people who had the pluck to release their thoughts to the internet world, without the benefit of editors, peer reviewers, and the scads of people that we rehearse our arguments in front of during academic conferences. So here I am, taking up the chall … Read More


With a title like this, you might think: “Nate’s gone off his rocker. All this rapture talk has turned him into a conspiracy theorist.” Judge for yourself, but I think you will find a compelling case below that we as the church, like the internet, are in danger of over-personalizing our user experience to the extent that we lose sight of both the gospel and the missio dei.

View full article »