Text of the Day 11-3-16

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 Genesis 1:27:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.

There are three things that are revolutionary about this verse. All of them are about how God values humanity:

  1. It is a statement that directly contradicted Babylonian and Egyptian religion which typically said that the gods made human beings to be slaves, or as the consequence of a divine conflict. In ancient Hebrew religion, God intentionally created human beings to reflect God’s deepest self, not as slaves.
  2. It asserts we are made in God’s image regardless of gender. God’s image apparently incorporates the full spectrum of human gender. It’s a statement about equality and inclusion.
  3. It upended typical religions of the day, which made images (idols) of the gods. God’s command to make no images of God tells us: if you want to see God, look at image of God in the person next to you. It drives us to look for God horizontally, not vertically.

We might sum up these revolutionary ideas with the words “intention, equality, diversity.”

I think our religious practice is still trying to catch up to this 3000 year-old idea. We have a hard time recognizing that every human is made in the image of God. Jesus restated it when he said we should look for him among the poor, sick, and imprisoned.

Think also what it says about you: whatever shortcomings and limitations you believe you have, whatever toxic body image or self image our culture has forced upon you, remember that you are made in the very image of God. You and the 6 billion people who share this spinning rock are alike in that you reflect God’s glory and beauty.

And if we learn to love our neighbor as we learn to love ourselves, we will learn to love God.

Text of the Day 11-1-16

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 from Mark 11:28-33:

They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?”

Jesus said to them, “I have a question for you. Give me an answer, then I’ll tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things. Was John’s baptism of heavenly or of human origin? Answer me.”

They argued among themselves, “If we say, ‘It’s of heavenly origin,’ he’ll say, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But we can’t say, ‘It’s of earthly origin.’” They said this because they were afraid of the crowd, because they all thought John was a prophet. They answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Jesus replied, “Neither will I tell you what kind of authority I have to do these things.”

Religious leaders have not changed much in 2000 years. We don’t want to alienate anyone, least of all members of our congregations. We cling to the belief that in any conflict between oppression and liberation there is some third way or a mushy middle that will keep our hands clean from human fallibility or political consequences. It’s what led some white Birmingham church leaders to tsk-tsk at Martin Luther King, Jr. for “moving too fast” and “stirring up trouble,” and why his letter back to them is a classic. They could not recognize this audacious movement as a movement of God.

When our neutrality and our authority is questioned, we get butt hurt. “Who gave you this authority?” they ask Jesus. They are indignant precisely because they lack moral courage to name the theological reality in front of them.

If Jesus were a typical religious leader, the only reason anyone would ever want to crucify him is because he was boring.

“Mark’s Gospel originally was written to help imperial subjects learn the hard truth about themselves. He does not pretend to represent the word of God dispassionately or impartially, as if that word were innocuously universal in its appeal to rich and poor alike. His is a story by, about, and for those committed to God’s work of justice, compassion, and liberation in the world.” — Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man.

The power to speak truth to power does not come from earthly power. It comes from God, and God is never neutral. And it’s only from this perspective, that God is active on behalf of those who are oppressed, that the good news can actually be heard.

Something to think about: the powers that be fear YOU.

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

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?

Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”