Text Of the Day for February 23, 2018

Matthew’s second temptation of Christ:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
    and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

(Matthew 4:5-7)

In Matthew, the second temptation is for Jesus to miraculously save himself from death by leaping from the top of the temple in Jerusalem and… flying?

800px-Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)

In Luke, this is the final temptation. I think Luke appreciates the irony that in the very next story, after Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, the congregation also wants to throw him off a high place! (See Luke 4:16-30)

“Leaping from the temple would prove to onlookers that Jesus was divine,” I’ve heard preachers say. “It would be an easy path to becoming the messiah.” I think that’s interesting but wrong. According to the stories, Jesus did all sorts of miraculous things. It wasn’t as if he lacked an audience or needed better PR.

From my perspective, there is nothing tempting or easy about falling from a high place. When I’ve stood near the edge of a cliff and looked over, the blood-deprived tingly feeling in my gut was my body’s quiet but firm way of saying “not today, buddy,”

I suspect this temptation had more to do with Jesus‘ certainty. Christians idolize the “leap of faith,” like leaving one’s home country to be a missionary. When we’re on a mission from God, says the dominant theology, nothing will stand in our way; success is inevitable, and proves that God loves us and that we’re important. If the Creator preserved Jesus from premature death, Jesus could carry out the rest of his ministry without any doubt. He’d never have to pray, “If possible, let this cup pass from me,” or “Why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus, in the wilderness, replies with a reference to Israel’s time in the wilderness, when they asked Moses to prove (again) that God was with them (Exodus 17:7). Jesus’ answer indicates that real faith isn’t so much about leaping and expecting God to catch you as it is about the slow plod through the desert, full of doubt and thirst.

Twice a week during Lent (usually 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

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Text Of the Day for February 20, 2018

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

(Matthew 4:1-4)

In the story of Jesus in the wilderness, he confronts the tempter three different times. The first time, he is tempted to turn stones into bread.

800px-Temptations_of_Christ_(San_Marco)

Of course, Jesus was hungry, but bread was symbolic and political. The phrase “bread and circuses” comes to us from Rome. The Empire used food both as a reward and a weapon, to punish and pacify occupied territory—like the land where Jesus lived.

Later on, when he feeds thousands of people by the sea with only a handful of loaves and fish, the people are ready to follow him into battle. Mark points out that they sit in groups of fifties and hundreds, which is biblical language implying an army (Mark 6:40; (compare Exodus 18:25 and 1 Maccabees 3:54-57)). John says that after the miracle, the people come and want to make him king by force (John 6:15).

The politics of bread still is still at work today. Alabama is one of the few states that actually tax groceries. A pastor friend confronted an Alabama legislator about it, and he replied, “How else are you going to get money out of poor people?” Whenever politicians talk about “makers and takers,” whenever they blame immigrants for stealing jobs, they are playing the Roman game of weaponizing food. But the alternative is not “bread and circuses” to pacify the poor. The alternative is the living bread. “I will feed them with justice,” says God (Ezekiel 34:16).

When Jesus does provide bread, the miracle is understated. He doesn’t wave a wand and turn stones into bread. That would make him the dispenser. No, the bread appears because it is shared and not hoarded. He also tells his disciples to pray for daily bread.

The fact is, the world produces enough food to feed everyone on it. What we have is not a supply problem, but a distribution problem. We even use biblical language to describe it: food deserts. We don’t need to turn stones into bread. We need to address the sin that leads to hoarding and inequality. “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” (John 6:27).

 

Twice a week during Lent (usually 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

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Text Of the Day for February 15, 2018

Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
    and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
    and pervert all equity,
who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with wrong!
Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
    its priests teach for a price,
    its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
    “Surely the Lord is with us!
    No harm shall come upon us.”

(Micah 3:9-11)

It is heartbreaking to begin Lent with news of another school shooting. Yet another. Another.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Jesus_Tempted_in_the_Wilderness_(Jésus_tenté_dans_le_désert)_-_James_Tissot_-_overall

Lent begins with the story of Jesus tempted in the wilderness. The devil offers Jesus political power if only Jesus will bow down and worship him. He tries to bribe the Son of Man. Everyone has their price, right? As Micah says of his leaders in Jerusalem, “its rulers give judgments for a bribe; its priests teach for a price.”

We know that our leaders are susceptible to bribery and the promise of influence and power. There have been plenty of articles about the NRA’s influence on congress, and the devil’s bargain white evangelical churches have made with the far-right. We are so weary of those who “abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong!”

A lobbyist came to see Jesus. He offered him an endless supply of bread, fame, and political power if only he would worship the devil. The lobbyist quoted the Bible and phrased his arguments in religious language. Jesus was tempted. But Jesus knew the price of the kingdom he was proclaiming. He would pay it himself, and it was not for sale.

The story teaches us that the devil will hide behind moral and religious language as he offers his bribes. Jesus says we’ll know such by their fruit.

The story also raises another question for those of us who follow Jesus: What’s your price?

Twice a week during Lent (usually 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

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Text Of the Day for Feb 13, 2018

“Then the Lord God said, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make them a helper that is perfect for them.” (Genesis 2:18)

Tomorrow is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday. I’ve joked that I will impose the ashes on people’s foreheads in the shape of a heart.

It’s actually a fitting coincidence, when you think about the story of Saint Valentine. He was allegedly martyred by the Emperor Claudius on February 14, 269, for helping Christians under persecution (including performing marriages). I think it’s especially fitting to remember Saint Valentine on this Ash Wednesday for a couple of reasons:

1) My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, is currently struggling with how it will organize itself, since many Methodists disagree over the ordination and marriage of LGBTQ persons.

2) The movement toward Good Friday during Lent is usually portrayed as an individual’s “dark night of the soul,” a journey of penitence and fasting, very much at odds with images of hedonistic romantic love and boxes of chocolates in popular culture. But the juxtaposition and reconciliation of the two is appropriate for Christians, I think. First, because our journey of penitence and fasting is never actually alone. The sin we repent of is not just individual but corporate, so we have partners on our journey. Second, because fasting is a means to an end. Jesus said of his disciples, “They cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” (Mark 2:19). Jesus compared the kingdom to a wedding banquet where all are invited, but he indicated there are different times for different behaviors.

Of course, romantic love is idolized in our culture, and many people, both religious and non-religious, have had their fill of it. The idea that we each have a “soul mate” in another human being who “completes us” is pernicious and destructive. 

But romantic love, for many of us, is the first inkling that we have of the Divine. Whether it’s driven by physiology or spirituality, the feeling of losing-youself-while-finding-yourself is mystical. One of my biggest complaints about the hetero-patriarchy is that it has stifled heterosexual men’s religious imagination about God, since it refuses to ever refer to God in feminine terms. The idea that God woos us like a lover, that God desires intimacy with us, and actually loves human bodies enough to hold us accountable for the way they are treated is a corrective that the church desperately needs.

Rome was right to be afraid of Valentine, as it was right to be afraid of Jesus. Love does, in fact, threaten the Empire.


Twice a week (usually 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

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/judith.jpg

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Bathsheba
Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

[Chorus]
Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Education
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.

Chorus

Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy

Chorus

SaveSave

Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

American_flag_at_2008_US_Open

• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.

• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him. 

• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.

• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.

• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.

• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!

• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.

• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.

On Statues and Idols

egypt_queen_pharaoh_hatshepsut_statue

The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.

In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.

I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”

Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.

When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”

Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.

It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.

In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.

Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.

Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?

Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?

This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.

These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.

“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.

And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.

White Noise

Update 8/15: I wrote this last month, but it seemed too angry. Now it seems too tame. 
This song is meant to be sung in the sweetly sarcastic folksy style of Pete Seeger. 

A businessman was happy ‘bout his real estate downtown
And he couldn’t understand the fact it made some people frown
And he said with some frustration that if people who were brown
didn’t stop with the complaining it would bring his value down.

 

He said, “there was racism back in 1963;
But racism is over and it doesn’t bother me.
And gentrifizzication occurs naturallifically,
It’s simply market forces just as far as I can see.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignore it and racism will just go away
Like shingles, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

Well Black Lives Matter blocked a street and made her late for work,
And she got up in her feelings and said that all of them were jerks.
“If they wouldn’t be divisive they would sure have my support.
Just work within the system and wait for justice from the court.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Like rain clouds give way to a bright sunny day
Like diabetes, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

“Well slightly less than half of us elected 45;
And Beauregard Jeff Sessions wants the drug war to survive.
Some say incarceration is just legal slavery
But we’re number one in prisons here in this land of the free.

 

“We’ve worked hard to create a culture that is colorblind;
And we’ve made so much progress that no child is left behind.
The fact that some contest it is truly a disgrace
The problem that we live with surely isn’t about race.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignoring white priv’lege will make it go away.
Like appendicitis, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

The preacher was offended that I said his God was white.
He said I was unloving and so very impolite.
But the Jesus that I know of wasn’t killed for being tame.
And a gospel without justice is a dirty rotten shame.

 

‘Cause it won’t go away, no it won’t go away.
Just wishing and praying won’t make it go away.
And when folks fight against it, don’t stare in dumb dismay.
You’d best decide which side you’re on before the Judgment Day.

Voting Is Not Consumption

If your vote isn’t important, why are they trying so hard to take it away?

We’ve come to think about democracy as a form of consumption, like everything else, where voting is just a indication of preference. This is what the dominant narrative wants you to think: politics is just like buying a pair of socks. That way, when they place restrictions on that right or take it away from your neighbors, you won’t mind so much.

But democracy is really about what happens on either side of election day. It’s about telling stories, building relationships, and leveraging power. It’s holding officials accountable and showing up at their offices. Your officials don’t represent you if they don’t have a relationship with you.

The forces of domination and empire would really rather you stay home, stay quiet, and let lobbyists and money have all the influence. Even our Supreme Court has declared that democracy is consumption, because money is speech.

That is a lie.

Alabama,* we’ve got elections coming up. Your state has tried to make it as difficult as possible for you to vote — spreading out multiple elections in the same month (senate primaries on the 15th, municipal elections on the 22nd), shutting down registration locations, and most recently, refusing to tell some ex-prisoners that they may actually be able to vote after all.

Your state legislators have gerrymandered you so officials could choose their voters instead of voters choosing their officials. They have sold you the most cynical and hopeless of political narratives, that “this is Alabama, and it’s just the way things are,” because they want you to stay home. They DO NOT WANT you to turn out. They have made that abundantly clear.

If this is your home, fight for it.

1. Make sure you are registered (They may have silently unregistered you if you haven’t voted recently. They do that.)

2. Make sure you know your polling place (They may have moved it, or moved your district. They do that, too.)

3. Join the discussion. Go to the forums and debates. Talk to your neighbors. There are multiple opportunities to hear from candidates before the election, so you don’t have to walk in to the voting booth uninformed. Check out Stand As One and I Believe in Birmingham.

4. If you have a strong preference, join a campaign, or if you’re just serious about your community, join one of many Get Out The Vote campaigns (I’m with Faith in Action Alabama). They have a way for you to help. Work with your congregation or other community organization to get people to the polls.

5. On election day(s), VOTE.

6. After election day, hold your representatives accountable. Stand As One, who represents over 20 justice, advocacy, and service organizations is asking for follow-up meetings with candidates 100 days after their election. Faith in Action Alabama, a multi-faith, multi-racial federation of over 60 congregations all across Alabama, has a multi-year strategy to engage our state legislators and our governor. Write, call, and email your officials about your vision for your community.

Yes, I recognize that having the time to be engaged is a privilege. Making you too tired and overwhelmed to participate, keeping people in a state of perpetual poverty and debt; that is part of the disenfranchisement strategy. That’s why we have to love and support each other. Help your neighbors. Babysit their kids. Make food for each other. That’s also democracy.

Do not buy into the lie that your vote is just an indication of preference. You are not buying a pair of socks; you are shaping our future.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7)

 

*I’m focused on where I live. If you’re reading this in another state, a lot of this same stuff applies! Look up “get out the vote” campaigns in your state.

An Open Letter to My Parents’ Pastor

Important words from a follower of Jesus.

Carrie Surbaugh

You don’t know me, and I’m not usually in the habit of writing open letters, but this is a special occasion.

You’ve been the pastor of Alliance United Methodist Church for two Sundays now. Last Sunday you gave a sermon about the authority of Scripture. About halfway through the sermon, you said some things that hurt a lot of people very deeply. Towards the end, you mentioned that you don’t care about hurting people’s feelings (which doesn’t strike me as very pastoral, but that’s another letter).

Long story short, my parents are leaving Alliance.

Here are some things you should know: we’ve been members for 13 years, since I was ten years old. My brother and I were confirmed there; I preached for the first time there; until recently, I thought I would get married there.

Another thing you should know: I am a lesbian. I came out this year,

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