Text of the Day 10-27-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s text is Matthew 16:24:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.

I think this is one of the most misunderstood and misapplied scriptures in the gospels. In Luke’s gospel, the phrase is “take up their cross daily,”and so Christian commentators speak generically about self-denial as part of discipleship.

But the cross had a specific meaning. It was reserved for rebels and traitors to the Roman Empire. If you were hung on a cross, you were a billboard for the power of Rome. It wasn’t just execution—it was advertising. Public execution is a demonstration of power. It’s meant to intimidate and terrorize people into submission.

So when Jesus tells his followers to “take up their cross,” he is essentially telling his followers, “Do the kinds of things that will get you labeled a traitor to the Empire.” Denying yourself means abandoning the selfish quest to move up the ladder of power, status, and respectability. Jesus is saying, “Kick the ladder over.”

His statement also stands in contrast to what revolutionaries usually say: “Take up your sword and follow me.” Jesus rejects violent revolution in favor of the nonviolent way of love.

When the organizers of the Civil Rights Movement began encouraging people to actually get arrested, they were flipping the script: Being arrested was not shameful; it was a badge of honor. It exposed a broken system for the sham it was. So likewise, when I see Colin Kaepernick choose to kneel rather than stand for the National Anthem, I understand he has chosen a cross to carry precisely in order to flip the script.

I believe this scripture goes hand in hand with the one I shared on Tuesday: “My yoke is easy and my burden light.” The more I have come to understand what it means to address systemic injustice, the more I realize that living under the power of authoritarian religion and coercive Empire is a far heavier burden than the cross of Christ.

Text of the Day 10-25-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

V0045282 A man carrying Holy water with his wife. Gouache drawing.

Credit: London, Wellcome Library, Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Today’s scripture is Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

So much of religious practice seems to be about gritting your teeth and striving for something hard. People interpret “take up your cross and deny yourself” to mean that following Jesus is about doing something difficult or contrary to your deepest desire.

But Jesus seems to be saying that following The Way is not about heavier and stricter interpretations of scripture. The Way is about letting go. In Eugene Peterson’s translation, he calls it “relaxing into the unforced rhythms of grace.”

Living this Way will certainly put you at odds with the Kingdom of Busyness and Death. But there is peace and rest in it.

Text of the Day 10-20-16

Each Tuesday and Thursday I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 
Text Of The Day

Today’s scripture is Proverbs 24:10-12:

If you show yourself weak on a day of distress,
    your strength is too small.
Rescue those being taken off to death;
    and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.
If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,”
    the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand?
    The one who protects your life—he knows.
    He makes people pay for their actions.

“We didn’t know about it” is the excuse most of us use to ignore injustice. It sounds a lot like the hapless goats who say to Jesus, “When did we see you hungry, or sick, or in prison?” in Matthew 25:44.

The author of Proverbs doesn’t buy it.

We see that this excuse has been around for a long, long time. God holds us accountable for a basic level of social awareness. If we become aware of someone being taken off to death, we have an obligation to the one who weighs our hearts to do something about it. You’ve probably read the poem by Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Socialists.” This passage says basically the same thing.

Recently, I watched 13th, the Netflix documentary about how our criminal justice system has continued the slave system in our country. Prisoners themselves are trying to get our attention. Because I am now aware of it, I cannot ignore it. That’s one reason I’m part of Faith in Action Alabama and will be helping to lead the District Attorney Forum on October 27 at 7PM at Sardis Missionary Baptist Church.

When you become aware of injustice, do something. God made you neither weak nor blind to injustice, but in God’s image: powerful, creative, insightful, and capable of helping on the day of distress.

Text Of The Day

Sometimes you just need a prompt, maybe a couple of times during the week, to read the Bible and reflect on it. You’re not crazy about syrupy-sweet devotionals and you want something that will tickle your brain as well as challenge you to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).

If that describes you, you can click the link below to sign up below for a SMS-based Bible study prompt.

Text Of The Day

Discipleship Series

I’ve created a Vimeo album so you can see all the messages from our Discipleship series in one place. There are six videos which address our five areas of discipleship:

  1. Introduction
  2. Worship
  3. Devotion
  4. Compassion
  5. Justice
  6. Witness

If you use these videos in a Sunday school class or small group, please let me know! I’d also like to know what you find helpful or what could be improved. And if you’d like to help me make more of these videos, you can always support our church here. Thanks!

Discipleship 1: Invitation from Dave Barnhart on Vimeo.

A Prayer for Pride Week


Image by Robert Valette, via Wikimedia Commons


God of ceaseless revelation,
You came out to Create;
Said, “You are made in my image, male, female, or otherwise, for I am all genders.”
You made humans to be in relationship with each other,
naked and unashamed.

But we shut you up.
We said “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,”
and we stitched fig leaves together to cover everything
of which we were ashamed.
And we said, “This is not you, God.”

God of ceaseless revelation,
You came out to Liberate;
In the flaming bush,
you declared to a people enslaved
that you were not like the gods of Egypt
made in the image of the ibis, hound, or cow;
or made in the image of rich and powerful Pharaoh
who said that the poor were “lazy, lazy.”
You came out and said,
“I Am Who I Am.
I Am The One Who Is With You,
and I will liberate you from slavery and oppression.”

But we shut you up.
We said, “This far you shall come, and no farther.”
We declared there were places you could not go
And people you could not touch
And we remade you in the image of our kings and strong men.
With our actions and words,
we declared that some lives don’t matter as much as others
in our Infernal Great Chain of Being,
And we said, “This is not you, God.”

God of ceaseless revelation,
You came out to Save and Salve,
in the person of Jesus Christ.
You revealed yourself in a baby,
a rabbi, one unjustly executed, and one who refused to stay dead.
You revealed you are in solidarity with all those persecuted
All those beaten and left to die on the side of a road
or tied to a fence,
All those Samaritans of the wrong religion or ethnic group who stop to lend aid,
All those who are hungry, thirsty, sick, or in prison,
All those who are doxxed or lynched, assaulted or shamed,
All those who are betrayed by their allies with a kiss.

And you declared woe and misery to the religious leaders
trapped in the hell of their own righteousness,
self-exiled from the people they exile,
self-excluded from your own banquet,
refusing to attend your wedding feast,
cut off by their own hand from those who could give them life.
“If only,” you pleaded with them, “you would learn the things that make for peace!”

And again we shut you up.
We nailed you to the sky and inverted your good news.
We wrote our own scriptures:
“God helps those who help themselves,”
“God will never give you more than you can handle,”
“Love the sinner and hate the sin.”
We turned people away from your table.
We performed amazing feats of theological and intellectual acrobatics
And even as we read the story of Jesus Christ
We still managed to say,
“This is not you, God.”

God of ceaseless revelation,
You came out at Pentecost;
As wind and fire, giving voice to your followers
in all their diversity,
Allowing them to speak and understand,
Crossing barriers of language, ethnicity, and culture,
Calling people to a new way of living together.
Our sons and daughters prophesied of all the great things you had done, are doing, and will do.

And we shut you up.
Told women to be silent in church,
executed evangelists for translating the Bible,
told preachers where they could and could not speak a word of grace,
and, like Balak to Balaam, commanded your priests to curse rather than pray a blessing.
We tried to contain the wind of your spirit within the stone walls of our buildings
and we blamed the world when we could no longer
feel your breath moving against our skin.

And still you come out.
You come out in our friends and our enemies.
You come out in every conversation where we see the image of God
in someone in whom we couldn’t see it before.
You reveal yourself when our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends,
our pastors and colleagues,
Share who they are with us.
Again and again you give us the opportunity to see you for who you really are,
and who we really are,
made in your image.

In places where churches must hide for fear of discovery
Or people must hide for fear of being known,
Where the threat of violence, rejection, and poverty
force people to choose
over thriving,
Let there be light.
Let those who can
be a light to the world,
Not so they can be seen, but so they may give their light to all in the house.
Let those who cannot be a light
Be salt—subtle and savory,
Saving and preserving those who,
in our ignorance or negligence,
we fail to see as worth saving.

God of ceaseless revelation,
Come out to us
in humankind and relationships
in burning bushes and nature
in scripture and writings
in worship and poetry
in music and song

And never allow us
to shut you up.


(Want more?

Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology, Pamela R. Lightsey

God Comes Out: A Queer Homiletic, Olive Elaine Hinnent

Jesus Christ, Woody Guthrie)

A Ten-Minute Walk to Freedom


Jesus didn’t have to die.

Until I stood there in the Garden of Gethsemane and looked across the narrow valley to the Temple Mount, I didn’t understand the strategic location of Jesus’ choice. Our guide pointed up the Mount of Olives.

“That’s a ten-minute walk to freedom, right there,” he said. “Where you are standing is like the county line. Jesus could have gone over the mountain and been out of the jurisdiction of the Temple Police.”

The rest of that week 2000 years ago, Jesus had been overnighting in Bethany, just outside the grasp of the Jerusalem elite. They dared not arrest him during the day, because they feared a riot, and with a riot, a Roman crackdown.

So when Jesus chose to wait in the garden after dark, it was deliberate. He was far enough outside the city that there wouldn’t be trouble, but not so far that he couldn’t be arrested.

I can hear the edge in his voice when he addresses the lynch mob indignantly. He sees the clubs and swords in their hands. “Really? Now you bring night sticks with you, as though I were a bandit? Day after day I’ve been teaching in public and you haven’t had the guts to arrest me “(Matthew 14:48-49). He resists calling them cowards. He picked this spot to avoid violence. He’s incensed that they came to instigate it.

Some people speculate that maybe he and Judas had arranged it together. I don’t buy that completely, but it’s clear Jesus chose his prayer spot deliberately. He stood at the edge of town where nobody would get hurt and said, “Come and get me.” When they showed up in riot gear, hoping that his disciples would start something—some things never change—he pointed out their bad faith. He knew the stakes. He wanted to protect innocent lives. He did not want a single one of his followers to be lost, or even his enemies to be hurt. In spite of his careful preparations, in that moment when one of his followers pulled out a weapon, everything could have been lost. It all depended on his commitment to nonviolence being absolutely clear. He choose the time and place for the maximum effect and the minimum harm.

I don’t know what you believe about Jesus. I don’t know if you believe he had supernatural powers, or that he was the Son of God, or that he rose from the dead on Sunday. But this is what I want you to know today, on this Maundy Thursday:

He gave himself up.

He could have chosen escape. He could have chosen violence. But he chose to confront religious and political violence with nothing but his voice and his body.

Whether you believe in God or not, I want you to understand what I understood, standing there in that place. If there is a God worth worshiping, this is what God looks like.



Seeing God


Some folks think I should believe that Jesus is the Son of God because they believe the Bible says I should believe it. And I should believe because it’s the Bible and the Bible says I should.

I know, right?

Some folks think I should believe in him because he did magic tricks, because the Bible says he did.

Some folks think I should believe in him because they can argue convincingly that he got up after he died, and someone said that lots of people saw it, and it’s reported in the Bible.

Some folks think I should believe in him because if I don’t, bad things will happen to me.

As a kid, I tried believing. I tried with the same effort that kids try during Peter Pan, when Peter tells the audience if they just clap their hands and grit their teeth and put some effort into their belief, they can keep Tinker Bell alive. Even the adults get a little weepy when the fading spotlight suddenly grows brighter and we all cheer that fairies are real, and Tinker Bell is alive.

None of that stuff ever convinced me to believe in Jesus as the Son of God. I couldn’t do it. My belief engine simply couldn’t sustain itself with such weak fuel. The occasional mystical experiences I had with God could only take me to about 80% certainty. My faith could only aspire to mustard-seed size.

There was a moment that finally convinced me that Jesus was real, and that he was the Son of God. It was when I realized that Jesus was a smart-ass.

I was in grad school, taking a class on the parables with David Buttrick. I learned a lot in that class. I learned that Jesus occasionally used strong language (like in the parable of the fig tree). I learned that he was deliberately provocative (like when he healed chronic sickness on the sabbath).

One day he told the story of the Good Samaritan. He described how all the audience chuckled along with the skewering of the religious leaders as first a priest, then a scribe, walk on by an injured man in need of help.

And then Jesus introduces the third person and we all know, because we are familiar with jokes and parabolic stories, that the third person is the one who breaks the pattern: the third little pig, the third daughter to answer the riddle, the third sports fan to walk into a bar. The third person to show up is the one, in click-baity fashion, who will blow your mind, who will leave you speechless.

The third person is the foreigner you hate.

I’ve often said it would be like going into a fundamentalist church in the south and telling the story this way: The first person to pass by is a Catholic. The second is a Baptist. The third… the third is one of us good Methodists, right?

The third is a Muslim.

In order to answer a question about which religious commandments we should follow, Jesus answers, “Why don’t you try to be more like a good Muslim?”

And if you can imagine the audience’s reaction, then you probably understand why some folks wanted him dead. People wanted to throw him off a cliff. To shut his mouth, to silence him, to call him a glutton and a drunkard, to crucify him. What do you expect from someone who hangs out with tax collectors and prostitutes?

That’s when I knew for sure, in my heart, that God was speaking through Jesus’ mouth. That guy right there, the one punched and shoved out of the political rally, the one who hears the doors of the church slam behind him—that guy is God in the flesh. No doubt. It was a revelation. I saw God.

Sometimes I imagine the second coming. When she returns, with what flesh will the logos wrap herself? All the boys looking at the sky straining for a view of a white bearded Jesus are going to get their feelings hurt if the Jesus of the gospels is in charge. This Jesus who talked about God as a woman looking for a coin or mixing yeast into bread—you think that Word is going to come wearing the flesh and garments of political and religious power?

But what if it’s already happening? After all, every week we take communion and claim that by feasting on the body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ, redeemed by his blood with the Spirit of Christ in us and among us. We ask to be made one with Christ, with each other, and in ministry to all the world. We proclaim a smart-ass gospel to a literalist world, a gospel that requires a different kind of seeing and hearing than conventional wisdom. I see my church doing that. They take that Word into themselves, and they speak that Word of hope and healing to a hurting world. They do so at the risk of their own flesh, sometimes. They make sacrifices to get the message out.

This Jesus presents a picture of God’s character that is so opposite what we normally think of as “religious” that I would leave everything I know to follow. This “yes!” in my heart echoes God’s “yes!” to me.

That’s why I believe in Jesus.

Always Learning: House Churches

Our church has morphed into a network of house churches. It’s been a fascinating transformation to experience.

My biggest learning so far has been that I find it much more energizing to start new groups of people, new communities, than to try to get people to come and participate in an existing community. As long as we were focused on an attractional model of doing church, I felt tremendous pressure to make worship into a show.

Now, I like the showy aspect of worship. I love bringing our collective creativity as an offering and presenting it to God. I love Marva Dawn’s description of worship as a “royal waste of time.” Pageantry and excitement, drama, music and storytelling help make our time “royal,” and it’s time which has no value (a “waste”) to those who only measure its utility, including Christians who think that any time spent in God-directed worship is time stolen from feeding the hungry or solving the world’s problems. I still eagerly look forward to our monthly large-group gatherings, when the band rocks and we make worship into a party.

But there’s little more exciting than getting new groups off the ground. I love experiencing the relief they have when they can ask the pastor a direct question during worship, when they feel safe enough to share what they really want to pray about for themselves, when they develop the kind of community in which they want to take care of each other (instead of waiting for the pastor to do it). I like it when the best sermon illustration isn’t mine, but something that someone shares happened to them that very week. Discipleship is amazing to watch.

There’s also something about approaching church this way that really puts flesh on the parable of the sower. Planting new communities by flinging seeds into the wind, letting them fall where they may, is inefficient; but I’m seeing God grow the church this way.


Barak’s Insubordination (Judges 4)

Lambert Lombard, Jaël (1530-35). Museum Grand Curtius, Liège, Belgium.

The story of Deborah and Barak usually gets read in a very un-feminist way, in spite of the fact that she’s the only named female judge of ancient Israel (Judges 4:1-24). Preachers portray Barak as being too timid: he’s afraid to go into battle against Sisera’s army (4:8). He says to Deborah, “I will go if you go,” and the implied message of these interpretations is that if he would “man up,” then he would get the glory of killing Sisera. Instead, because Barak needs a woman to hold his hand, God delivers Sisera into the hand of a nomad woman (4:21).

This interpretation is a sleight-of-hand. It takes a story with a female hero and turns it into an object lesson about the dangers of giving up masculine strength and authority.

Some interpreters read this story in a more generous and less sexist way. They see Deborah and Barak as sharing power (the song in chapter 5 does name both of them as leaders), but Barak’s failing is that he does not adequately trust God. I’m not convinced by this reading, because I don’t really see why gender becomes a relevant point of their discussion in this interpretation.

I’m even less convinced by one alternative reading mentioned in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which says that Barak is “inviting Deborah to bless the military expedition.” Again, if that’s the case, why does it matter to Deborah who gets the glory, or whether they are male or female?

Instead, I approach this text with a question I’ve heard asked about other female leaders—how would Barak’s response be different if Deborah were a man? If a male prophet had told him to gather the troops and meet Sisera in the field, would he have hesitated? I think there is something other that distrust of God or benevolent invitation in Barak’s resistance. I think it’s a challenge: “Lady, it’s easy for you, to talk about going to war. But will you put your life on the line?”

Read from this direction, Barak’s failing is not cowardice, but sexism. He is insubordinate to Deborah in a way that he would not be to Gideon or David or Moses, because she is a woman.

From this reading, her response makes sense: “Fine, but the path you are following will not lead to your glory; God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Deborah is willing to put skin in the game, to take the field of battle with the fighting men. But even she doesn’t deliver the killing blow. That service is performed by Jael (4:21), someone with even less power and standing, using a woman’s homemaker tools. Barak loses the glory of victory because he doesn’t trust a woman to lead him.

How would churches be different if this were the standard approach in sermons?