Text of the Day for 5-30-17

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Today’s text is from Amos 2:6-7:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way… (NRSV)

This is one of those passages that packs even more of a punch when you read it in context. Amos starts in chapter 1 by addressing all the surrounding nations and city-states: Damascus, Tyre, Gaza, Edom, and so on. He uses the same phrase: “For three transgressions, and for four…”

It’d be a bit like if I wanted to deliver a prophecy to the United States, but I started with North Korea, and then Iran, and then Russia, describing all their failures. I’d get my audience nodding along with me, but I’d save the best for last: “And as for you, you United States of America…” The repetition is a set up for a surprise.

Amos says that the guilt of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, is oppression of the poor. I’m going to stick with Amos for a few weeks, and later on we’ll get to the passage Rev. Dr. King made famous more than 2500 years later, but right now I just want to leave you with this perspective on Amos:

First, he lumps Israel in with the other nations in order to make a point: Israel’s special, but they ain’t that special.

Second, their main sin is oppression of the poor. Whatever else you may have heard about God’s judgment of Israel, Amos wants to make it clear—it’s not because of their lack of religiosity. It’s their mistreatment of the poor.

Which raises this question: “How are the poor mistreated?” And how can we avoid doing the same thing?

 


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: 

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Text of the Day for 2-9-17

Today’s text is from Matthew 5:12-16:

Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before [y’all]. [Y’all] are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. [Y’all] are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (CEB [with my edits])

I’ve heard plenty of salt-and-light sermons calling Christians to do good things. But often it is preached as though this section is divorced from the preceding sentence:

In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before [y’all].

These are not separate ideas, though they are often separated in your printed Bible by verse numbers and section headings.

Jesus is speaking to a community of prophets.

See, it depends how you read this phrase. Most people read with a comma, like this: “…the prophets, who were the ones who came before y’all.” I read it without the comma, i.e. “…the prophets who came before y’all prophets.”

Jesus just spent his prologue telling us that the people who we think are losers are really winners (“happy are the poor in spirit”). It takes a prophet’s vision to see this reality. Jesus is speaking to a community he expects to carry on this prophetic tradition. That is why this community will be a “light on a lamp stand,” letting people see what has been hidden by darkness.

Too often, preachers have focused on simply the last phrase in this section: letting others see your good deeds and giving glory to God in heaven. We have separated good works from the prophetic vision, charity from social justice, and works of mercy from evangelism. The call to be salt and light has a particular context: a prophetic community who is willing to be persecuted for Jesus’ and righteousness’ sake.

We are a prophetic community. That is why we are salt and light.


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. 

Text of the Day for 2-7-17

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The Sermon on the Mount (1896), Károly Ferenczy. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

Today’s text comes from Matthew 5:3-12:

  • Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
  • Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
  • Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
  • Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
  • Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
  • Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
  • Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.
  • Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
  • Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.

I formatted it as a dot list so you can see (in a contemporary way) the kind of impact it is supposed to have.

I said this past Sunday that the words of The Sermon on the Mount are fire. From the beginning, Jesus speaks revolution: the world is upside-down, and God is going to turn it right-side-up. It is not the winners who are blessed: the confident, the happy, the alpha dogs, the satisfied, the privileged. No, the blessed are those who are poor (or poor in spirit), those who mourn, those who are starving for justice. The blessed are those who are persecuted for seeking peace and justice and righteousness.

Which is what you will be, if you follow the words of this sermon: both persecuted and blessed. You will be persecuted and blessed because you will be a prophet in a community of prophets, and prophets are always persecuted. (That’s what “people harassed the prophets who came before you” means—you, too, are in the company of prophets.)

By your light, Jesus says, others will see reality, the way the world really is. Your light is not something to stare at—it’s meant to give light “to all in the house,” so that they can see.

All of this is just the prologue. Jesus spends 15 verses telling us who to aspire to be as individuals and as a community before he ever says anything about himself.

I gave our church some homework: read the Sermon on the Mount over the next few weeks. Read it, or part of it, every day. See how it changes you.

Have fun.


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: 
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Text of the Day for 12-20-16

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Our text for today is from the story of Gideon in Judges 7:4-7:

The Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many people. Take them down to the water, and I will weed them out for you there. Whenever I tell you, ‘This one will go with you,’ he should go with you; but whenever I tell you, ‘This one won’t go with you,’ he should not go.” So he took the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Set aside those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, from those who bend down on their knees to drink.” The number of men who lapped was three hundred, and all the rest of the people bent down on their knees to drink water, with their hands to their mouths. Then the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men who lapped I will rescue you and hand over the Midianites to you. Let everyone else go home.”  (CEB)

This is a story about how God whittles down Gideon’s formidable army from 20,000 to 300 in order to take the enemy by surprise.

God is constantly doing this kind of thing: asking us to win battles with fewer people, or fewer resources, or against uneven odds. Fighting giants with slingshots. Attacking cities with trumpets. Invading our world through a manger.

We miss the point if we think this is just about Cinderella or underdog victories. God establishes a pattern early in God’s history with God’s people that God will not fight according to conventional tactics. God doesn’t want anyone else to take the credit. This is God’s fight, and God’s victory. Our leadership and our actions are simply the methods by which God gets what God wants. David’s hand holds the sling, but the stone moves according to God’s trajectory.

This is one reason I think activists and social justice warriors need to be reminded that we are not the ones bending the arc of history toward justice. We often labor under the delusion that we need bigger armies or better weapons to win, when what we really need is God’s devious strategy—which we only discern by listening carefully.

In Christmas, God is not using the tactics of conventional warfare. God is sneaking in the back door and deploying a biological payload. This package will spread its effects virally, like yeast in bread or a mustard seed in a field, from person to person, community to community, until it transforms the world. The resistance and the victory belong to God.

Text of the Day for 12-14-16

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Incarnation. It’s on my mind because Christmas is coming. I’ve got a few texts for reflection kicking around in my brain today:

Genesis 1:27:

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them

Genesis 2:7:

…the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.

Song of Songs 1:16-17

Look at you—so beautiful, my love! Yes, delightful! Yes, our bed is lush and green! The ceilings of our chambers are cedars; our rafters, cypresses.

Luke 1:34-35

 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”

Incarnation is one of the most important—and least appreciated—aspects of the Christmas story. The word “incarnation” shares the same root as “carnal.” It literally means “flesh.” The scandal of the incarnation is that God loves flesh and material existence so much that God put on our flesh in order to save and heal us and our broken world.

There is no single Christian attitude toward the body. The theology of the body has covered a wide spectrum of beliefs and metaphors. But it’s safe to say that Christian theology has often spiritualized the body. Many Christians have talked about salvation in terms of a soul becoming free of the body instead of talking about a resurrected or transformed body.

But part of being made in the image of God is being rendered in material and temporal clay. In humanity, God chooses to “get God’s hands dirty.” God has carnal joy in squishing the fertile mud through God’s own fingers. God shares God’s own breath with us in an intimate kiss of life. In the creation of humans in relationship to each other—socially, sexually, politically, religiously—God also shows that we are interdependent, like the rest of God’s material creation. There are no tides without the pull of the moon and no rain without the heat of the sun.  In the Song of Songs verse, humans rejoice in their love for each other and see themselves as part of God’s natural world.

We have several theological choices when it comes to talking about the Virgin Birth and what the story means for Christian theology. Some see it as a sex-negative reinforcement of patriarchal theology. Some see it as a feminist declaration of independence and God’s solidarity with the oppressed. Some see it as a radical reframing of “fruitfulness.” Some see it only as a demonstration of God’s power (“Look! God can do magic!”).

I think the incarnation and the Virgin Birth gives us an opportunity to reflect critically on our theology of the body and how it affects the way we live. How does it affect the way we think about justice for the poor? About hunger? About sexuality? About the material conditions of people’s lives? About the baby born in a manger? When we spiritualize the message, we miss out on God’s concern for the material conditions of human existence.

If the incarnation is just a story about the miracle of birth, it is sweet and inspiring, but not redemptive. I believe it is a story about God’s embrace of the whole complex human being, full of contradictions: pain, pleasure, hope, loneliness, sin, grace, and vision. The body matters, and we cannot tell our faith story in such a way that we ignore real bodies.

Here are some quotes for further reflection:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The soul is part of the body. The mind is part of the body. When folks do physical violence to black people, to black bodies in this country, the soul as we construe it is damaged, too – the mind is damaged, too.”

George MacDonald: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Karl Barth: “Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”


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: 
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Text of the Day for 12-8-16

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Today’s text is from Exodus 23:1

Don’t spread false rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness.

“Fake news” is in the news a lot right now. Its power has changed our culture. I took the above photo in line at the grocery store last week, and I realized that these tabloids are now exemplary for what passes for “news” for about half of the population.

Lots of people see this through a cynical lens. “You can’t trust anyone,” they say. “There’s no such thing as truth—only spin.”

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word “truth.” It evades responsibility for our own critical reading and thinking, because it’s simply “too hard.” And while I’m skeptical of our ability to completely grasp truth or discern God’s perspective on reality, what we can affirm is this:

Some claims are lies. And some claims are more true than others.

The gospel is “Good News,” and in order for it to be good it must have some claim on the truth. It offers a counter-narrative to the dominant one(s). The Good News gives us reason to resist the powers that be, to affirm the existence of truth in a world that tells us such resistance or affirmation is futile.

For us, truth is not merely about a set of facts we agree or disagree on. It’s about a relationship with the Ground of Being, an orientation to the Source. The Truth, the Way, and the Life calls us away from cynicism to pursue certain objective goods. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.”

Good News is always the enemy of fake news. And fake news is always the enemy of the Good News.


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

Text of the Day for 12-6-16

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By Todd Huffman from Phoenix, AZ (A wise man is astonished by everything.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today’s text is from Proverbs 26:9:

Like a thorny bush in the hand of a drunk,
so is a proverb in the mouth of fools.

This is one of my favorite Bible verses of all. You can’t quote it without acknowledging the possibility that you are, in fact, a fool quoting the Bible.

This is ancient wisdom literature critiquing itself. This verse says that context is important. Any idiot can quote wise sayings or spout scripture. Wisdom is not the ability to pull verses out of the air, but the understanding that there are fitting words for fitting times. (You can watch my video about Proverbs and context here).

It also acknowledges the danger that someone confident of their own wisdom poses to themselves and others. This is part of the reason the term “Dunning-Kruger effect” has come into popular parlance. It refers to a situation in which someone doesn’t know that they do not know something. To put it bluntly, they’re too stupid to understand that they are stupid.

Wisdom is about knowing where we are not yet wise, knowledgable, or talented. Fools are supremely confident in their own knowledge. Wise persons know their knowledge and wisdom are unfinished.

Hence the state of the world.

Too often, not only Proverbs but the whole Bible has been used to promote ignorance and to harm others by those who are not wise, knowledgable, or talented. “Like a thorny bush in the hand of a drunk.” Bad theology harms its users and those around. Some folks are too inebriated to understand the damage they do to themselves and others.

(Some know or suspect the damage they cause—and do it anyway.)

Memorize this verse. But deploy it wisely 😉


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: 
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Text of the Day for World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day. So I’ve chosen for today’s text Luke 7:36-50:

One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. After he entered the Pharisee’s home, he took his place at the table. Meanwhile, a woman from the city, a sinner, discovered that Jesus was dining in the Pharisee’s house. She brought perfumed oil in a vase made of alabaster. Standing behind him at his feet and crying, she began to wet his feet with her tears. She wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and poured the oil on them. When the Pharisee who had invited Jesus saw what was happening, he said to himself, If this man were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman is touching him. He would know that she is a sinner.

Jesus replied, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”

“Teacher, speak,” he said.

“A certain lender had two debtors. One owed enough money to pay five hundred people for a day’s work. The other owed enough money for fifty. When they couldn’t pay, the lender forgave the debts of them both. Which of them will love him more?”

Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.”

Jesus said, “You have judged correctly.”

Jesus turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your home, you didn’t give me water for my feet, but she wet my feet with tears and wiped them with her hair. You didn’t greet me with a kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing my feet since I came in. You didn’t anoint my head with oil, but she has poured perfumed oil on my feet. This is why I tell you that her many sins have been forgiven; so she has shown great love. The one who is forgiven little loves little.”

Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

The other table guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this person that even forgives sins?”

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Too many Christians believe in a pernicious Theology of Deserving. It talks about karma instead of grace. It says we get whatever we’ve got coming to us. Those who are rich, healthy, and privileged are that way because they are faithful, and God has blessed them. Those who are poor, sick, and oppressed are that way because they are sinners.

But blessing does not come to us because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Remember Jesus’ most famous sermon? “Blessed are the poor… those who mourn… those who make peace… those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…” None of these did anything to earn God’s blessing.

In the same sermon, Jesus says God makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the just and the unjust, the wicked and the good.

Job’s friends certainly believed in a Theology of Deserving, and they told Job he must have sinned for such terrible things to happen for him. God rebuked them for their lack of understanding.

I grew up as the AIDS epidemic blew up in the 80’s. I heard—and believed—a lot of the most hateful and misinformed rhetoric around the transmission of HIV. Some of this came from the church.

In the mid-90’s, I remember walking in to the church I served as an assistant youth pastor. I said to the youth director, “I just heard on the radio that researchers may only be a decade away from a vaccine for HIV.” She replied, “Oh, no! Then nothing will keep these kids from having sex.”

I just stared. I didn’t know how to respond.

Since they often presumed that people acquired the disease through some kind of immoral sexuality, some churches became barriers to God instead of bearers of God. Like Simon, they presumed that some people were not worthy of Christ’s attention. They found justification for their oppression of LGBTQ persons.

But there were also churches who acted like Christ. Places like GLIDE Memorial UMC saw AIDS as another opportunity to show Christ’s unconditional love. One church I attended, Trinity UMC in Huntsville, was one of the first organizations in the city to develop an AIDS outreach in the 1990’s. And in their ministries they often found Christ was already alive and active among those who the church had neglected.

I’ve certainly changed my mind a lot about theology, sexuality, ethics, and public health since I was a teenager. I am grateful that God has forgiven my sins of being unloving and ungracious.

Let us firmly rebuke the Theology of Deserving with the Theology of Serving. We are not blessed because we are faithful, but because God is faithful. Those who are poor, those who mourn, those who are sick, and those who are oppressed are those who will be vindicated by God. This is the Good News we share.

Text of the Day 11-29-16

Today’s text is from Psalm 51:6:

And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
you teach me wisdom in the most secret space. (CEB)

I think this verse is about integrity. God wants us solid to the core. Truth is not just about the public appearance or validation of truth, but an inner correspondence between our being and the world.

Truth is a slippery concept in our society. Some people say there is none, that everything is spin, and the only thing that matters is how many people you can convince at any given time. I think this is one of the reasons, as Harry Frankfurt says, we are surrounded by bullshit. He says the difference between a lie and BS is that a lie is a knowing distortion of the truth; but BS doesn’t care what the truth is at all.

Let us be people of integrity. We may not always be able to tell truth from lies in the public world, and the are those who profit by spreading BS and humbug. But we follow The Way, The Truth, and The Life, who will direct our steps.


So, that’s the devotional part. Let me add a few academic notes about the Bible and translation, especially about this particular verse:

This is one of those verses that can be translated several ways. I learned it in Sunday school as a kid this way: “You desire truth in the inward being.” (That’s from the New Revised Standard Version). I liked “inward being,” because it sounds philosophical and mystical.

But you can translate it more concretely. Yet another translation, the New International Version, uses a different choice for “inward being” — womb.  Womb actually makes more sense, especially when you put it in context:

Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Another contemporary translation, the NET Bible, uses the word integrity, which I like. But these translators take it in a sexist direction: “You desire integrity in the inner man; you want me to possess wisdom.”

The word “man” is nowhere in the text. This translation was made in 1995, well after translators should have known better. Why not use “person?”

How did we get from womb to a place where women are entirely erased? Does God not desire integrity from women, too? It’s ironic to me that the translation of this verse, which is about inner integrity, illustrates the lack of integrity created by sexism.

Our privilege, our blindness to the ways we are shaped by sexism, racism, and other isms, puts holes in our integrity, in the correspondence between inward truth and the social reality with which we all live. God wants truth in our inward beings, in our deepest selves, because shalom (peace with justice) has to pervade our spiritual lives as well as our social lives.

It is ironic that the translation of this verse provides such a window into how social lies can corrupt our deepest selves.

I’ll say it again: let us be people of integrity.

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: 
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Text of the Day for 11-24-2016

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 1 Timothy 6:7-10:

for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 

But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

Tomorrow is Black Friday, when lots of retailers do most of their business of the year. We are told that it is almost a moral duty to go out and consume for the good of our economy. As much as we preachers complain about the materialism of Christmas, we haven’t done much to curtail the tradition! We have not demonstrated being content with the basics: food, clothing, shelter, water, and love. And so we’ve given ground to the real religion of our culture: the marketplace.

I’m going to encourage you to boycott Black Friday. Or, if you spend, spend in such a way that brings more justice into the world. Patronize local or minority-owned businesses. Give recycled or upcycled gifts. Choose to seek eternal values, rather than ones doomed to obsolescence.

Our culture tells us what success looks like: more, bigger, shinier, newer. But we take out of the world exactly what we brought into it: nothing. If we are to leave behind something other than trash, stuff that “moth and rust can consume” (Matthew 6:19-20), we have to build it ourselves out of the only resource that matters: people. We invest in people. We build relationships. The gifts of God are all around us as creative, loving, talented human beings.

Of course, gift-giving and sharing resources can be part of building relationships and communities. But this holiday season, let’s think about how we can be generous stewards not only of our money, but of all the resources around us. What kinds of gifts can we give to our community that will outlast us?