We Are Seeds: Text Of the Day for March 13, 2018

The upcoming lectionary text for Sunday contains one of my favorite metaphors:

Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.

(John 12:24-26)

We say the bit about wheat falling to the ground and dying during the funeral liturgy. The seed metaphor has been stated beautifully by poets, activists, and musicians: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.”

 

wheat

A biologist would point out that a grain of wheat doesn’t technically die, but it’s a lovely description of the way we bury something in order to create more of it. Jesus lays the symbolism on thick, here: what he is doing will be replicated many times over. He will die, and create a movement. The members of this movement will do the same. All of this illustrates the love-it-and-lose-it paradox: that we only find meaning and purpose outside of ourselves. Our lives are fulfilled when we realize our lives are not the most important thing. We find our selves when we lose our selves for a greater purpose.

The “hate/love” language can be difficult for modern ears, but it was a staple of ancient rhetoric. Modern folks are also more aware of two great distortions of this teaching. The first is a social distortion: the church has sometimes used doormat theology to oppress others. It has said, “You should hate your life so you must accept unfair treatment. You are a sinner and deserve hell, so be grateful for what you get.” The second is a personal distortion: individuals use passive-aggressive selflessness to shame and humiliate others. In many toxic relationships, someone plays the martyr or hero. Both of these distortions, social and personal, involve self-deception and sleight-of-hand. We can use the language of selflessness to massage our own egos or build our own power.

It helps to place the metaphor in context: Jesus’ revelation about his identity and character. He ties it to the movement he births, he describes it in terms of a cosmic battle with the “prince of this world,” and he restates one of John’s favorite themes: that those who follow Jesus will be with him. If we give ourselves in love to others and to God, we will recognize Jesus is with us the whole way. Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. ” Jesus is about to voluntarily walk into a cosmic conflict with the forces of evil and oppression that will play itself out in his very body, and although it is terrifying, he is more alive than ever.

 


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. 

Not by Willpower: Text Of the Day for March 8, 2018

There are several references in the Lenten readings to Ol’ Scratch and temptation:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

(Ephesians 2:1-3)

I keep a folder of hate mail that people send me informing me that I’m going to hell (in loving, Christian terms, of course), so I understand why some progressive Christians are allergic to the language Paul uses above. “Following the desires of flesh and senses” sounds like Puritan condemnation of sex, chocolate, beer, and dancing, and “the ruler of the power of the air” like fundamentalist obsession with the devil.

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By the way, the Greek words for “trespass” and “sin” here literally mean “falling down” and “missing the mark.” In the Greek philosophy in which Paul was steeped, the passions were like wild horses which, without a skilled driver in the chariot, would gallop to destruction. The will, human reason, was the driver who directed the passions toward their proper goal. Paradoxically, we are not truly free if we give our passions free reign. Seeking life, we become dead. Our passions become our masters.

But Paul makes a break with Greek philosophy here. We do not overcome the passions by exerting the will or employing our reason. We are made alive by the grace of Jesus Christ:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

(Ephesians 2:4-6)

Lent is not about controlling our passions with willpower, but opening ourselves to grace.

It is easier to believe than ever, I think, that there are forces of systemic evil in this world led by ego-centric human passions: xenophobia, greed, racism, and superficial status. “Children of wrath” seems apt. Paul says all of us were once this way, immature in our actions and thinking, following a “spirit of disobedience,” a power as invisible and pervasive as the air.

What sets us free is grace. It is not earned or achieved by force of will. There is nothing to be smug about. So, if we’re inclined to tsk-tsk at the state of the world, we remember that the only thing that will save us is not our own enlightenment or force of will, but the action of God in Jesus Christ.


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. 

Jesus as a Snake: Text Of the Day for March 6, 2018

It’s not the most famous wilderness story, but it’s the one Jesus references when he talks with a religious leader:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

(John 3:14-18)

The story is that when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness, they had a poisonous snake problem. God instructed Moses to make a bronze snake-on-a-stick, and when people would get bitten by poisonous snakes, they could look at the snake and not die. 

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The old story from the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrews depends on a kind of sympathetic magic, a bit like drinking “the hair of the dog that bit you.” Somehow just looking at the image of the snake would mitigate the effects of snake venom.

The author of John uses this as an analogy for Jesus. Somehow, looking at Jesus on the cross and understanding him as the son of God mitigates the effect… of what? Apparently we’ve been bitten and poisoned by something, and seeing it exposed and lifted up saves us from death.

In both stories, something scary is transformed into medicine. Many people have a fear of snakes and react to them with horror and revulsion, so it is counter-intuitive to make the image of a snake into a healing symbol. Likewise, the cross was a form of Roman propaganda, a tool of oppression that terrorized occupied people. But seeing the Son of Man lifted up in this way also becomes a healing symbol. We need fear neither snakes nor human evil. God can save us from such poison.

Many Christians focus on the personal pain and torture that Jesus endured on the cross, as though the redemptive act is made efficacious by how much he suffers. But in this passage Jesus seems to be saying that it is in being lifted up, and in being seen and believed that God saves the world from death. God has no interest in killing, only in saving us from our self-imposed systems of death and power.


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. 

Whip It: Text Of the Day for March 1, 2018

In John, one of Jesus’ first dramatic acts is to cause a riot in the temple:

Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

(John 2:15-16)

In the other three gospels, Jesus waits until his final week to riot in the temple. In John, he kicks off his ministry with this protest.

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Caveat #1: This tends to be a go-to story for authoritarian Christians who really like the image of Christ using a whip on sinners. You can tell a lot about someone’s theology by the context in which they deploy this story and whether they ever connect it to other kinds of public protest: Black Lives Matter, for example, or Occupy Wall Street. If someone uses this story to illustrate “how much God hates sin,” then you know they see Jesus as a riot policeman with a baton—not a revolutionary of love. Tellingly, the text never says he used the whip on people, but only on sheep and cattle. He did pour money on the floor and flip tables, but the action he takes toward people is speech: “Take these things out of here.” He never hits anyone.

Caveat #2: These were not kids trying to raise money for a mission trip by holding a bake sale at the door of the church. It helps to know some context. Members of the priestly class could rent space at the temple to make money on the side. Because the priests also judged which animals were worthy to be sacrificed, it was a bit like going to a movie theater or a ball game where no outside food is permitted. In that context, you know your favorite watered-down carbonated fizzy drink will be five dollars, and a candy bar will require a second mortgage. Sacrificial animals could cost ten times the fair rate. So, no, this is nothing like fundraising for the youth group. I’ve heard adult congregation members complain about youth group fundraising by using this scripture, and it makes me want to use a whip on the adults.

This text is a warning about the the way our religion becomes institutionalized: Religious profiteers will certainly try to hijack your mission and distort your values. They will take your focus off of love of God and love of neighbor in order to make a buck. The proper response is to make it impossible for them to do business.

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. 

Third Temptation: Text Of the Day for February 27, 2018

Matthew’s third temptation of Christ:

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

(Matthew 4:8-11)

In Matthew, the third temptation is for Jesus to trade worship of the devil for all the kingdoms of the world.

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Neither worship of the devil nor all the kingdoms of the world are very attractive to me, so it’s a bit hard to wrap my head around this temptation. Many commentators and pastors suggest this was “the easy way” for Jesus to become the messiah.

There are two angles that make this temptation more understandable to me. The first is that Jesus was not a 21st century North American, but a member of an oppressed people living under occupation. I can imagine Satan saying to Jesus, “How well is worship of God working out for you? You’ve been under the heel of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, the Seleucids, and Rome. Had enough yet?” So while the offer is not enticing to me personally, I can certainly imagine being fed up enough to leave behind the Way of Jesus for the Way of Caesar, or to trade Israel’s faceless, mysterious God for a god with some muscles and lightning bolts, like Baal or Zeus.

Here is the second angle that makes this temptation understandable: we can see multiple times in history when Christians have traded their historic witness for power. This was clear most recently in white evangelical support for Roy Moore, but we can also see it in religious wars, inquisitions, colonialism, and the slave trade. Apparently, all that is required is the promise of money and political power, especially when Christians believe—rationally or not—that they are the oppressed minority. The devil is particularly adept not only at wearing religious clothes and masquerading as God, but doing so while offering us the chance to settle the score, to win at our enemy’s expense.

Jesus tells of a Kingdom in which the poor, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for justice, and those who work for peace are “blessed.” If the path you pursue doesn’t bless those people, it’s probably from the devil.

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. 

Second Temptation: 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?

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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. 

First Temptation: 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.

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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. Jesus does not need a huge supply of bread to give out. He needs his followers to share.

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. 

What’s Your Price? 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.

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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. 

Valentine’s Ash Wednesday: 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

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