Famous Last Words: Don’t Forget Your Mother

For the First Word, click here.
For the Second Word, click here.

John 19:25-27
Jesus’ mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene stood near the cross. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

The Third Word Jesus speaks from the cross is about his mother. Near the cross, Jesus sees his mother and the disciple whom he loved (I talk about who this might be in this past Sunday’s teaching at MCC. Go here to listen). In his waning moments he commits the care of his mother to this Beloved Disciple. I think this touching moment works on two levels. 

First, as a son, he is concerned for his mother’s future. If she were a widow, as it is traditionally assumed, her options in a patriarchal society, without someone assuming her care, wouldn’t be good. So, Jesus commits her to the care of his most trusted disciple. 

On another level, is we allow these two characters to also play a symbolic role, we can see the larger point Jesus is making. If the mother of Jesus represents the Jewish tradition, the faith that gave birth to and shaped Jesus, and if the Beloved Disciple represents the emerging Christian tradition, then Jesus’ intention is clear: as this movement expands, don’t forget where you came from. Honor your mother, the faith that brought you into the world. 

Too often, we wrongly assume that Jesus came into the world for the purpose of founding a new religion. This is not so. Jesus’ work was that of a reformer, calling his tradition to be true to the God he called ‘Father,’ to love their neighbor (which for Jesus, is everyone), and to participate in the repair of the world. Christianity actually began in the synagogue. Those Jewish men and women who believed Jesus to be the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams worshipped alongside their Jewish brothers and sisters who did not see it that way. Eventually, however, the tension between the “Mother” tradition and the burgeoning Jesus movement came to a head. There was a split between these two groups.

Yet, from the cross, Jesus reminds his followers, “Don’t forget your mother.” Honor and acknowledge the soil in which your roots have been planted. Sadly, Christian tradition is stained with many, many instances in which we have done the opposite. Crusades and Holocausts serve as stark and painful reminders of how we have failed to honor our Mother.  

God, forgive us!

Famous Last Words: Welcome To Paradise

For the first word, click here.

Luke 23v39-43, CEB
One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die?  We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus’ second word from the cross comes also from Luke 23. First, Jesus has offered forgiveness to his executioners; now, Jesus extends grace to another unlikely recipient. Jesus, according to the Gospels, was crucified with two others. How these two people are described differs between various translations of the Gospels. Sometimes they are called robbers or criminals or thieves or malefactors, but the fact is that Romans wouldn’t have crucified someone for stealing or basic criminal activity. No, crucifixion was reserved for specific crimes that were considered so heinous that they deserved such brutal punishment. Borg and Crossan call crucifixion a kind of public terrorism.

One group deemed to be worthy of crucifixion was runaway or insubordinate slaves. This functioned as both a punishment for their crimes, and as a warning to other slaves who may have been thinking about running away: this is what happens when you run.

The other group that would be certain to meet their end on a Roman cross were enemies of the state, particularly anyone who claimed the titles and power that were reserved for the Roman Caesar alone. This, too, served as a punishment and a warning: Don’t resist or challenge Caesar. It won’t end well for you.

The proper translation of this term used to describe those crucified alongside Jesus, then, would be rebel or revolutionary

This is illuminating, not only to the nature of the crimes of the men crucified with Jesus, but also for why Jesus himself is being executed on a Roman cross: they were, all three, considered enemies of the state. Jesus, after all, could not be the the King of the Jews. Caesar, and his client rulers like the Herods, were the real kings. For Jesus to proclaim God’s Kingdom, was treason. It was a direct challenge to the legitimacy of Caesar’s rule, and Caesar would not have any such thing. 

The words of this penitent rebel, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” may seem a bit absurd. This Jesus has a kingdom? He’s dying right beside you, we might say. Yet, Jesus’ followers came to see his crucifixion–this moment of shame and rejection and defeat–as the moment of his greatest glory. The cross is the moment that Jesus is enthroned (see the Gospel of John especially for this idea).

Somehow this rebel, likely a man who in some way had spilled Roman blood to land himself in this predicament, sees in Jesus, a man who preached nonviolence and peacemaking, a man who healed wounds instead of inflicting them, what a true King looks like.

And Jesus responds to his request, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.” 

Paradise is a loanword from the Persian language that means “a walled garden.” When a king wanted to pay a special honor to one of his subjects he would make them a “companion of the garden”, which is a reference to taking a walk in the garden with the king.

This dying revolutionary, essentially realizing that Jesus’ way of love, compassion, and grace are a better way to live than the brutality and moral bankruptcy of violence, asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. 

Being remembered matters to us. Recently my son and his grandparents had a picnic at the edge of the woods on their property. While they were there, they carved my son’s initials into a tree. Why do we do things like that? We want to be remembered. We want our lives to have mattered. And this dying rebel, whose attempt to make a name for himself failed, asks Jesus to remember him. 

Jesus does him one better. Not only will he be remembered, but there is a place for even him in the Kingdom Jesus is ushering in. Actually, what Jesus has said and demonstrated all along is that there is a place for everyone.

That’s what the Kingdom is all about. 

Famous Last Words:”Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Luke 23v33-34, CEB
When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The first word Jesus speaks on the cross is both surprising and unsurprising at the same time. It is surprising because victims of crucifixion (or rebels, depending on which side of the empire you find yourself) were not known for kind gestures from their crosses. More common responses included calling down curses, and even urinating on those doing the crucifying.

Yet, for Jesus, these words, “Father, forgive them…,” are exactly what we have come to expect from him. It’s really no surprise that the one who would physically touch someone with a skin disease or another condition that made them “impure,” or who would associate himself with tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners,” would also be extending forgiveness to the very people who were killing him.

Forgiveness, for Jesus, is the first word. Not condemnation. Not shame or guilt. Not all the ways we could’ve performed better or been holier. Jesus begins with forgiveness, with an announcement that what we are looking for, what we’ve been trying to measure up to or somehow earn, is already ours.

And it’s ours whether we know it or even like it. These Roman soldiers and religious elite don’t seem to be making many apologies. Far from it, actually. They are insulting, mocking, belittling. And Jesus is forgiving. 

Perhaps that’s why the author of Ephesians uses this example of forgiveness to invite us into a better way to be human. In chapter four, verse thirty-two we are challenged to “Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.” Essentially, we are called to extend what we have discovered is true: we are loved, accepted, embraced, forgiven.

Perhaps the greatest way we can honor the death of Jesus is to model his radical, generous forgiveness in our own lives and relationships. 

Spiritual Charlotte Podcast

Hi friends!

This morning I took part in the Spiritual Charlotte podcast, for a series they are doing about the Bible. It’s hosted by Kendall Heath and Debbie Chisholm, and they are calling the series, That Other Bible School. We talked about everything from the Bible to faith and politics, and it was a super energizing experience for me. I can’t wait to be back for another conversation!

Check out Spiritual Charlotte here.

And you can find the episode here.

Be well!

JS

Jesus Doesn’t Want To Give Us That Old-Time Religion 

There’s an old gospel song that we used to sing when I was a kid. It went like this:

Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
Give me that old-time religion
It’s good enough for me

Then there were several verses about how the “old-time religion” was good enough for the Hebrew children, for Paul and Silas, for our forefathers and foremothers. There’s something about the idea that is awe-inspiring: we are connected in a web of relationship, a long line of spiritual ancestors that were having experiences and conversations that we are still engaging in today. And if that is what it means to have that “old-time religion,” to be connected to and grateful for all those who came before us, then sign me up. 

However, when I hear this language used, it isn’t generally referring to that “cloud of witnesses,” but to a particular way of seeing and interpreting our tradition and the Bible. It’s essentially a perspective that sees our faith and all it contains (how we understand God, the Bible, the faith journey, etc.) as static and unchanging. “This is how we’ve seen this issue, and this is how it has to/should be.” To question it or rethink it is a mark of unfaithfulness and heresy. If that’s what the phrase “old-time religion” means, then I don’t think Jesus wants to give it to us.  

This has been on my mind so much during the current teaching series I’m doing at MCC. It’s called Signs & Wonders, and it focuses on the seven signs through which Jesus reveals himself to his disciples and the world in the Gospel of John. These signs aren’t the point, in and of themselves, but like road signs they point beyond themselves to the larger reality Jesus is embodying and enacting.

The first sign Jesus performs is, on the surface, quite odd. In John 2, He goes to a wedding celebration, and when the wine runs out, he turns water into wine. Yep. This is not the Jesus of the temperance movement. And it seems like a really strange place to begin. Yet, this sign, according to the author, “…revealed his glory, and his disciples trusted in him.”

Like most stories in the Bible, the details matter here. Jesus is at a wedding celebration, which was a time of jubilation. Dancing, fine wine, good food, and abundant joy would all be in attendance. Even in first century Palestine, where the overwhelming majority of the people (especially those with whom Jesus spends most of his time) are living at a subsistence level or worse, all the stops would be pulled out for such an occasion. This was also an honor/shame culture, and the importance of generous hospitality can not be overstated. So, when the wine runs out, this is a catastrophe for the host family. They could not provide enough wine for their invited guests. The celebration was ruined. The shame of this event would follow the family around. For years to come, they’d talk about “The day the wine ran out.” [Not to mention a bad omen for this new marriage!]

At this critical moment, Jesus’ mother steps into the spotlight briefly. She urges Jesus to do something about this potential disaster, but he pushes back. It’s not his “time,” he says [in John, Jesus “time” refers to the ultimate manifestation of his glory, which in this Gospel, is the cross]. But then, he takes the initiative. He calls for the six-stone jars which held water for ceremonial washing to be filled with water. Then, he tells the servants to draw some out, and take it to the headwaiter. The headwaiter’s response is unexpected. This isn’t water, but actually a much better wine than what had previously ran out. 

“Everyone serves the good wine first,” He says. “They bring out the second-rate wine only when the guests are drinking freely. You kept the good wine until now.”

 And this, John says, reveals Jesus’ glory and causes his disciples to trust in him. 

There’s so much we could say about this story. The messianic overtones and winks and nudges toward the Hebrew scriptures are important. After all, Isaiah [among others] had talked of a Day when all nations would come to the Mountain of God, for a lavish feast of good food and fine wine. But what I want to draw our attention to is the importance of wine, and how it functions in this story.

First, in the scriptures an abundance of wine symbolizes blessing. In contrast, a lack of wine was taken to be symbolic of the absence of blessing [notice Psalm 104 and Isaiah 24 as examples]. The wine Jesus provides is more than abundant, as much as one-hundred-eighty gallons! And the quality of this wine: it was finer than the wine that had run out. 

Second, it’s important where the wine comes from. Before I continue, a brief aside. Often John’s gospel, with its scathing critique of the “Jews,” has been used in Christian history to justify anti-Semitism. That couldn’t be farther from what’s happening here! The author/community behind John was likely Jewish. Jesus and his followers were all Jewish. Jesus’ movement was about reforming his tradition, not starting a new religion.  John is critiquing the religious leadership, that in his mind, had resisted the message of reform Jesus brought. I make this aside because, sadly, anti-Semitism is once again on the rise in our world, and in our country. There is no place for this, and to make the story of the Jewish Jesus a vehicle for such attitudes and behaviors is blasphemy of the highest order. 

Back to where the wine comes from. There were six-stone jars, which would have been used for ritual cleansing and purification. This idea of purity/impurity was not one of “sin,” as we talk about it. It was about who could be in the presence of God in the Temple. As Psalm 24 asks,

Who can ascend the LORD’s mountain?
Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?
Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart;
the one who hasn’t made false promises,
the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly.
 
Instead of locating the action in a place, like the Temple, Jesus offers a different understanding [which was shared by many of the Prophets]: That God actually wants to give us the experience of an abundance of God, in the everydayness of life.
 
At this wedding, the abundance of wine then, is symbolic of the Spirit. Jesus, in this sign, points us to the work he’s doing in the world. He’s inviting us to open our eyes and hearts to the Spirit who is overflowing and bringing life and joy into the world. 
In other places Jesus talks about wineskins. “New wine,” he says, “cannot be stored in old wineskins.” The old wineskins are brittle, dry, and stretched to their capacity. New wine, still in the process of fermentation, needs new wineskins that have some stretch and give, because as fermentation happens, change is a necessity. 
I think what these two images [abundant wine and new wineskins] offer us is a way of approaching our faith that both respects the past, and launches us into the future. First, we are all talking about wine here. Our ancestors were interacting with and experiencing the Spirit in their own times and contexts. They processed their experiences through the lenses that were available to them at the time, and at some points, they traded their old lenses for new ones. We must honor, appreciate, and learn from their experiences. We must also realize that any religion can become a brittle, old wineskin. The point isn’t the religious label, the point is our openness to the work of the Spirit. 
We must also acknowledge that, as we understand it, the wine is still fermenting. None of us, past/present/future, will say all that needs to be said or learn all that can be learned about the Spirit.We are offered to drink of the fine wine of the Spirit. We are simply being invited into the fermentation process in our time and place. We are asked to be a new wineskin that has room to grow and transform as the Spirit expands us. 
If “old-time religion” means just repeating the discoveries of the past, and shutting ourselves off to the guidance of the Spirit today, then I don’t think Jesus wants to give us that. Jesus invites us to play our role in expanding our understanding and experience of the Spirit and moving our faith forward. 
 
Someday, future generations will look back on us, but I hope they don’t idealize us. I hope they know we have moved in fits and starts. That every step forward has often been followed by two steps backward. That the work of opening ourselves to the Spirit isn’t easy, but it is abundantly-life-giving. And then, I hope they seek to be open to the Spirit-at-work in their own time, place, and experience. Because God doesn’t change, but our understanding of God should.
 
May we ferment well, friends. 

Letting Go & Letting Come: An Ash Wednesday Litany

This year I created a litany for our Ash Wednesday gathering at MCC. I felt compelled to do this, because many of the confessions that are available (to my knowledge) tend to be anti-human. They play into a negative and unhelpful theology that says being human is a bad thing. Yet, in the scriptures, God calls being human good! I’m more and more convinced that bad theology creates bad anthropology. When we misunderstand who we are, and how God sees us, that can lead to toxic theologies that don’t contribute to our healing, wholeness, and flourishing.  

Our problem isn’t that we are human; our problem is that, often, we treat one another in ways that are subhuman. Gossip, hate, greed, and all of the negative and painful ways we can live, aren’t examples of just “being human.” Instead, they are examples of things that happen when we live beneath our humanity. So, below is the text we used during our gathering last Wednesday evening. I wanted to create a sense of acknowledging the ways we’ve lived sub-humanly, and then also opening ourselves to what could be, if we choose, with God’s help, to live into the fullness of our humanity.  

Note: The underlined text is intended to be read corporately. 

God,

Our Source and Ground of Being,
In you we live, move, and exist.
In your image we have been made.
You celebrate the goodness of our humanity,
and call us to live fully and love deeply.

Yet, today we confess that, in many ways,
we choose to live beneath our good humanness.
In things we have done, and things we have left undone,
we have neglected our calling to be your image bearers
to all of creation.

We confess, Lord.
We have dehumanized others by refusing to love them, by gossiping about them, and by making fun of them.

We confess, Lord.
We have dug our heels into us versus them thinking that makes it easy to condemn entire groups of people that we do not know.

We confess, Lord.
We have been reactionary, allowing fear to control us and dictate our actions.

We confess, Lord.
We have sought an eye for an eye, instead of loving our enemies.

We confess, Lord.

We have closed our ears to the cries of the poor and oppressed,
the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow among us.


We confess, Lord.


We have been greedy, and in our lust for more we have closed our eyes to all the opportunities to share out of our abundance with the hungry, the naked, and the stranger who are in need.

 We confess, Lord.
We have failed to steward creation responsibly, thinking only of ourselves and not of future generations, or the One who gifted us such a beautiful world.

 We confess, Lord.
And in the process, we have dehumanized ourselves.

We have willingly defined ourselves as consumers, and taken our identity and worth from how much money we have or what we possess, instead of grounding our identity in our calling to bear your image.

We confess, Lord.
We have been hypocritical, judgmental, and angry;
All of these are destructive, not only to others, but also to ourselves.

We confess, Lord.
We have used our religion as a weapon of exclusion,
instead of building a bigger table for all.

We confess, Lord.
________________

Give us eyes to see,
ears to hear,
and hearts that are open.

Let it be, Lord.
May we live into the fullness of our humanity,
the humanity that you called “good.”

Let it be, Lord.


May we live with hands open in generosity toward God,

our neighbor, and even our enemy.

 Let it be, Lord.
May we take seriously the call of Jesus to embrace our crosses,
instead of seeking crosses for our enemies.

Let it be, Lord.
May we steward the earth, and our brief lives here, with gratitude and care.

Let it be, Lord.
May we tune our hearts to the music of the Spirit,
following her lead as we take the next right step on our journey.

Let it be, Lord.
May we live lives that imitate Jesus, being broken and poured in love for others.

Let it be, Lord.
May we practice resurrection, here and now.

Let it be, Lord.
May we experience the full and abundant life,
to which Jesus invites us, here and now.

And everybody said,

Amen.

Dear Donald : An Open Letter To President Trump

Dear Donald,

By the time most people read this you will no longer be the President-Elect of the United States of America. Instead, you will be the newly inaugurated forty-fifth President of the United States of America. There may not be another position in the whole world that comes with as much power and responsibility as the one you are about to undertake, which is also the very reason that I am writing this letter.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I did not vote for you, nor do I support your stated agenda for our country, or your consistently divisive rhetoric. As a leader I have found that hearing the views of those who do not hold my positions is vital to the overall health of my community. I hope this is a value you share, and you will take these words (which I know you are very unlikely to ever read) of concern in the spirit they are written, which is a deep concern for the future of our country, and my children.

There’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures about king Solomon that I think applies to anyone in a position of leadership, especially one that carries as much power, responsibility, and influence as the office of the Presidency. Found in 1 Kings 10, the story follows a recounting of Solomon’s wealth and building initiatives. He had much prosperity, he was responsible for the building of several tremendous structures, and he was developing a reputation around the world as a successful, wealthy, powerful king. Then, the queen of Sheba arrived for a state visit, to see if Solomon was really as successful and legit as his reputation insisted.

And she was impressed with what she saw.
The text says that it “took her breath away.”

Her response was to tell Solomon that God had made him king “to uphold justice and righteousness.” Now, I have to tell you, I don’t think God made you president. I think it was actually the Rust Belt that made you president. Nevertheless, the last part applies. You have been given a role that carries great power, and with that comes the responsibility of upholding justice and righteousness for all people. Another way to put it is this: your responsibility now is to make wise decisions that are just and lead to the flourishing of your fellow citizens, and hopefully, the world. So, I’d like to offer my two-cents about some of those decisions.

First, you must uphold justice by condemning the racism and xenophobia that were energized by your campaign. No matter how you slice it, you were endorsed by white supremacists. Something about your message was appealing to them, and that should be deeply troubling to you, and everyone else for that matter. This can’t be papered over or ignored; it must be repudiated by you, boldly and forcefully.

Second, you must uphold justice by championing the freedoms we enjoy, for all Americans. This means Muslim Americans. A registry of Muslim Americans, that singles people out based on their religion, is unAmerican and unacceptable. This also means not undermining the free press. Just because you don’t like what a reporter says, or just because someone says something unfavorable, doesn’t mean you get to call everything you don’t like “fake news.” All Americans must count. That means LGBTQ Americans who want, not extra rights as Ben Carson suggests, but the same rights other Americans enjoy. That also means minorities that live in fear now because of your rhetoric. They must know that they matter, that their voice has a place in the national discourse, and that you support their flourishing as well.

Third, you must uphold justice by making sure that the most vulnerable among us are cared for. This includes the poor and the sick. The Affordable Care Act is surely not perfect, but repealing it without a replacement is immoral and unjust. Millions of Americans would be without coverage and without lifesaving treatments. This is America, and that can not stand. Do not let your Republican colleagues put the cart before the horse. Don’t let them take out their obvious disdain for President Obama and his policies on the American people, one of whom happens to be my mother. You are a billionaire and many of the people you have surrounded yourself with share your affluence. Don’t forget the poor. Don’t rig things in favor of the rich. After all, you were elected, in large part, by people who are struggling economically,  because you promised to be their champion. Be it.

Finally, you must uphold justice by thinking about the future and not just the present. The decisions your administration makes and the policies it implements will shape the world that our children grow up in, and that requires significant thought about what we are doing. Don’t make decisions today just because they are financially or politically expedient for this moment. Instead, have the courage to make choices that are forward-thinking, and that will leave a better world behind for our children and grandchildren and so on. This means taking climate change seriously, and not creating an anything goes policy when it comes to curbing our impact on the climate. This is going to be one of those issues that future generations will look back on, either with pride or disappointment. When Copernicus and Galileo insisted we live in a heliocentric solar system, they were called heretics and renounced. Today, we see how foolish that was, because they were right. I think the 97% of the scientific community that says not only is climate change real, but that we are impacting it in significant ways, probably know more than you or I about the issue. We should let them help shape our policies in wise ways moving forward. This forward-thinking approach also applies to the financial markets. We are now on the other side of difficult recession. The economy is continuing to improve. Don’t roll back regulations and adopt the same policies that led to the economic downturn. Think bigger than now. Our future generations will be grateful that you did.

President Trump, your job is not an easy one. The task is immense, the pressure is intense, and there will always be something that needs your attention. As a Christian, pastor, husband, father, and human being, I join with so many others asking you to be part of the healing process. Americans can not unite after the brutal, nasty campaign season we experienced without healing. Be patient. Honor differences of opinion. Be big enough to not retaliate in childish ways, and to apologize when you’re wrong.

Be a president for all Americans.

As for my part…

I will refuse to dehumanize you.  I will offer critique when it’s needed, and I will acknowledge it if you do something good, that upholds justice.

I will also be praying for you. Praying that you will uphold justice and righteousness, that you will be a good leader for our country and the world. I will also not be afraid to disagree with you, or to resist any unjust policies or attitudes that come from your administration.

Finally, I will seek to be the best human being I can be, and I will seek to make my own community better. I will use my sphere of influence, as best I can, to uphold justice, as well.

Grace and peace,

JS

 

%d bloggers like this: