Is There Grace for Brock Turner, Omar Mateen, and Bill Cosby?

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In this last week’s Lectionary reading is Luke 7:36-8:3. While Jesus was eating at a Pharisee’s house a notorious prostitute came in and begins kissing, anointing, and washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and ointment. The Pharisee, Simon, responds “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” Jesus responds with a parable about two men who owed a creditor a debt, and one of the men’s debts was ten times larger than the other. The creditor cancelled both of their debts, and Jesus asks Simon which of the men will love the creditor more. The answer, of course, is the man who owed more. And then Jesus says this brilliant line as he turns toward the woman and asks Simon: “Do you see this woman?”
Jesus is always flipping it on people who try to place people in hostile categories and under shameful labels.  Simon sees this woman for her sin, while Jesus sees this woman for who she really is. And he even suggests that there is more passion for God when it comes from someone who has more sin. That completely flips how so many of us see the world.

I want to take this even further. It’s easy to have compassion on certain “sinners”—those who get caught up in destructive paths that mainly bring harm to themselves. But what we see throughout Jesus’ life is that he has compassion for both the sinners we all rally around with open arms and the ones we all push away in disgust. The passage ends by describing those who followed Jesus from town to town: a squad filled with crooked tax collectors, zealous anarchists, women who just had seven demons exorcised out of them. This was a messy bunch. Jesus literally even had the nickname “friend of sinners”. Jesus associated with all the people you would refuse to associate yourself with.

So now that we have that perspective let’s think about today. When I think of the type of sinners we push away in disgust I think of people like Brock Turner. For those that don’t know the story Brock Turner is a 20-year-old Stanford student who recently raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and is only getting 3 months in jail for it. The initial outrage for the story was the way the media covered the story. Instead of showing his mugshot they showed a happy and innocent photo of him. And instead of referring to it as rape they referred to it as sexual assault. People quickly criticized the media for this since we’ve seen several times where a black man convicted of the same crime would be represented by his mugshot and the label of “rapist”. Then there was outrage at how the judge gave him such a short period of jail time: 6 months with the possibility of 3 months with good behavior. The judge was influenced by Brock Turner’s father who talked about how great of a person his son was before the incident, and how much he has been devastated with an incredible amount of guilt for his actions. The judge bought it and gave him a soft sentence, while the public went crazy and made sure everyone knew how horrible Brock Turner is; whether that was through taking away future opportunities, to countless articles written to make sure everyone remembers his crime, to groups of witches putting hexes on him.

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Now, before I continue let me say that what Brock Turner did was absolutely awful and yes, evil. And yes, the way he was convicted unfairly compared to everyone else who had been in a similar position is also awful and unjust. And yet, when I read this story of Jesus accepting the most unacceptable of sinners I imagine Brock Turner in place of the sinful woman.

I imagine Brock Turner crying at Jesus’ feet as we look in disgust and say “If Jesus really knew what kind of person this guy is and what he has done then he wouldn’t let him touch him.”

This is what so many of us are doing with our merciless condemnations on this kid.

I think of people like Bill Cosby, who used to be seen as a wholesome Christian role model, and has now had his reputation ruined with dozens of rape accusations. What Bill Cosby did was disgusting and awful, but imagine him crying at Jesus’ feet. What would our reaction be?

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What would our reaction be to see Omar Mateen—the man responsible for the largest mass shooting in US history at an Orlando gay nightclub—crying at Jesus’ feet?

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And Jesus would turn to us and say “Do you see this person? Do you actually see them?”

Who loves Jesus more when he forgives all of our sins, the one with the least amount of sins, or the one with the most? The one who spends their life criticizing the sinner, or the sinner buried in their shameful reputation? Which one will love and cling to Jesus more when Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

Personally, it’s hard for me to have that level of compassion. And it’s easy to condemn people for certain evil, especially when everyone around you from all different perspectives are ganging up together on it. I don’t think I want to be that kind of person though. Even several of my Christian friends love to gang up on the latest oppressor, but I keep finding myself less interested in siding with Christians, and more interested in siding with Jesus. And Jesus had radical compassion for everyone he met. Yes, he called them to more just and loving lives, but it began with a loving embrace of mercy and forgiveness. That’s the type of person I want to be in the world. I want to stand up for victims of all type of assault but I also want to be able to stretch our reach of grace to all sinners, even the ones who don’t deserve it. It’s painfully difficult, especially when we hear stories about Brock Turner, Bill Cosby, Omar Mateen, etc. but that’s the direction I’m trying to stretch my heart open. Perhaps a heart that wide could change things.

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The Messiness Required (Mark 8:31-38 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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In this week’s passage in Mark 8:31-38 Jesus takes his disciples’ understanding of his reason for being there and completely flips it all upside down. He says he’ll be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes: the ones that his followers naturally sought the approval of. He goes on to say that he will be killed, and after three days rise again. So of course Peter tries to rebuke Jesus for saying such things, because the Messiah was supposed to be the one who takes the throne in Jerusalem and reestablishes the rule of God. Jesus disrupts that simple expectation and tells them that it’s going to be a lot messier.

Jesus says “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who want to lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” This language of taking up one’s cross can get confusing with all the familiar religious symbolism that surrounds the cross today. In that time all the cross symbolized was execution by the Roman government, and nothing else. If we take away the inherent horror of this passage then we miss the point and we wind up thinking Peter is being ridiculous for trying to calm Jesus down. But I’m pretty sure most of us would have had the same reaction as Peter.

Leaving the horror in without the sugarcoating, we see Jesus showing us a new way to relate to our life and to our death. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people lately about death and leaving legacies, and it seems like the most honorable thing to do is to give up the desire for credit when it comes to trying to leave a legacy. The more honorable thing to do is to seek results more than credit. That means not getting the recognition you may think you deserve but part of maturing is seeing that recognition is so temporary. Results last longer.

Living life and doing work for a greater cause ends up being more life-giving than trying to hold tight to credit and recognition for the work that you do. For example, people would most likely be more offended if we decided to give someone like the CEO of Starbucks a $300 million bonus than if we were to give a $300 million bonus to someone like Mother Teresa. Jesus also says his followers would be known for their fruit (by what they do). Fruit speaks for you and people give more value to that than to what you say about yourself.

This is the kind of life Jesus is talking about when he talks about saving your life by losing it. One of my heroes, St. Francis of Assisi was a man who made himself more poor than everyone around him, refused to eat delectable food, ordered his followers to verbally abuse him whenever someone would speak well of him, and did many other things in order to debase himself from any high standing. Initially this sounds like a man who would be easily forgotten, but instead he became the most famous saint in history. This is how things actually work, and this is what Jesus is demonstrating with his life. This is the messiness required to be a follower of Jesus. You sacrifice your own life and ego, and throw yourself into this work of liberation and justice.

Jesus is trying to plug people into a story bigger than just you and your friends being restored, bigger than just you and your denomination being restored, bigger than just humans being restored; Jesus is in the business of restoring the whole thing. How? By demonstrating the process of sacrificing your own life and desires in order to bring life to those who do not have it. Then he gives us the responsibility of doing the same.

The kingdom of God is the present reality we step into when we let God’s mission of liberation become our own mission. The kingdom of God flips the traditional understanding of kingdoms upside down. In this kingdom you lose your life in order to save it and you lose your life if you try to save it yourself; the last are first and the first are last, the poor are the first to be blessed and the rich have received all the comfort they’re going to get; the hungry are fed, and the full are made hungry; those who weep will laugh and those who laugh will weep; God blesses those who are hated excluded, reviled and defamed, and brings sorrow to those who are spoken well of. We can go on all day with this stuff.

In this season of self-denial let us remember that this path is what leads to leaving a true legacy after our death. Let us loosen our tight grips on our reputation and our desire to be esteemed and recognized. Let us completely throw ourselves into the thing that God is doing in this world through those who choose to be his body in the world. This is our calling, our responsibility and our gift that Jesus gave to us all.

Hearts, Treasures, ‘Afterlife’ and Lent (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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And now, we’re in the season of Lent. Today’s passage is Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21, which was read on Ash Wednesday. I won’t be doing the passage read on Sunday because my first post was on that very passage. It will help if you read those passages to understand everything I’m referencing because that’s easier than wasting space quoting full chunks of the passage in this post. We get one of the most memorable quotes from Jesus in this passage: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” And that’s what I want to focus on.

In Judaism this language of where the heart is was about what a person centered their life in. This is how Marcus Borg understands ‘faith’ in his Jesus: A New Vision. He sees faith as a matter of the heart, rather than intellectual belief. “Faith must mean something more than what the mind believes, namely a radical trust in God, a centering in God by the self at its deepest level.” He also notes that this “centering in God is the opposite of anxiety as well as the antidote to anxiety.” Shortly after this passage Jesus speaks of an anxiety tied to earthly possessions, saying “do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’”

This anxiety seems to be central to the hearts of the trumpet-blowing alms-givers and the hypocrites who pray for the streets to hear, and disfigure their faces so that others can know they’re fasting. They cling to temporary constructs of status and reputation so that they can receive a reward that’s just as temporary. This is what Jesus is referring to when he warns his listeners not to store up treasures on earth “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” Instead he advises to store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do no break in and steal.”

Sometimes we can read this verse about storing up treasures in heaven instead of earth and reduce it to this idea of doing a good deed and imagining a point being marked up for you in this heavenly realm somewhere else, waiting there for you to receive after you die. This idea runs the same way we understand working a specific amount of hours, knowing we’re going to see it on our future paycheck. We work overtime and think of the extra money that will be racked up later. However when we view the way of life that Jesus is presenting here this way then all we’re doing is waiting for this cosmic paycheck that we’ll receive when we die for all the work we did. This is not what Jesus was talking about.

The Jewish understanding of any type of afterlife that existed in Jesus’ time was of what the rabbis called Olam Ha-Ba (The World to Come). And it doesn’t necessarily mean a literal different world waiting somewhere else and arriving, but it’s referring to what this world will be like in the next age after this one. Actually in the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament) any idea of there being more life after death didn’t develop until around the time of the exile, when God banished the Israelites from the Promised Land and handed them over to enemy nations. As a nation that spent most of the their existence being defeated, enslaved, exploited, and massacred throughout the centuries the prophets developed this idea of a day when God would restore it all. John Dominic Crossan refers to this idea as God’s “great clean-up of the world.” It’s a day when God raises everyone from the dead to judge all the nations and remove all forms of injustice and violence; in order to bring his reign of peace and prosperity.

There is no concept of leaving to some other realm somewhere else after you die in the Bible but what we read again and again is this expectation of God restoring, renewing and reconciling everything, and bringing his dwelling place among us; not to say that his dwelling place is somewhere else for now, but that the clouds of mystery that surround God will be removed, allowing us to fully experience that dwelling. This is what we mean by heaven. This is Olam Ha-Ba.

So how does one store up treasures in this World to Come? We do it by living as if we are already experiencing the World to Come. As Jesus said in the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” God is calling people to throw away the scorecards and to take up for yourselves the kind of life that God is bringing in this World to Come. If the purpose of God’s “great clean-up of the world” is to eradicate injustice and bring peace, then as God’s people this should be our purpose as well. We help create the kind of world that God would want to dwell by doing our part in bringing peace to the world.

This season of Lent is a season of reflection and self-denial, leading up to commemorating the ultimate self-denial of Jesus on the Cross on Good Friday. This kind of path takes courage and humility. It requires us to loosen our grips of temporary value and this is what we do when we give up things during this season. It’s important that we do not see the things we give up as necessarily wrong or evil, but in giving them up it reminds us of how we should hold these things. A tight grip on temporary valuables will get us nowhere. If we hold temporary valuables loosely however we are freed to throw ourselves into this path of Jesus: the path of living the World to Come and enacting the present reality of the kingdom of God. And I want to be able to center my heart on that.

Waiting To Be Transfigured (Mark 9:2-9 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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Here on Transfiguration Sunday and the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany we’re jumping quite a few chapters over to look at Mark’s account of the transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a high mountain where they witness Jesus transfigured (or transformed, in Greek: metamorphoō). Jesus’s clothes become ‘dazzling white’ while Moses and Elijah appear to converse with Jesus. Out of fear Peter suggests making three dwellings for each of them when he is interrupted by an overshadowing cloud saying “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Then everything disappears except for Jesus. As they walk down the mountain Jesus orders his disciples to tell no one of the event until he has risen from the dead.

Okay, now what do we do with this story??

It’s a story that many Christians (particularly from the Western Christian tradition) tend to forget when surveying the life of Jesus. We can dismiss this story, and make the mistake of viewing it as less significant than Jesus’s miracles and teachings. We could also dismiss it because of its odd nature. It is difficult for the modern individual to take a story like this seriously. And yet several of us have had weird and unexplainable experiences in life that have changed us. And even though we take those experiences more seriously than anything else, if we were asked to explain them to a group of strangers we may find ourselves fumbling over our words, afraid of sounding ridiculous. I believe Peter, James and John experienced something very similar.

This is an epiphany. It’s a manifestation, or appearance of something. Today people might call this a mystical experience, where some feel a sense of oneness with the divine (or something beyond ourselves). This ‘oneness’ can simply be a feeling of the lines and boundaries you mentally created to divide people, or events, or ideas suddenly disappear. It’s when the boxes that you neatly compartmentalized in your mind explode and you realize that things aren’t as you once thought they were.

The word ‘mystical’ comes from the Greek μυω, which means ‘to conceal’ and it’s also where we get the word ‘mystery’. In relation to God we can see it as the humble confession that there is a concealed nature to this mysterious God that we cannot know. For me, a mystical experience is an unexplainable encounter with the concealed nature of God that opens our eyes to the revealed nature of God; and the revealed nature of God is that which has always been revealed to us, but we were not aware of it.

For Jesus’ disciples this transfiguration had revealed that which had always been revealed. Peter had even confessed to Jesus that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah about a week before this event. The transfiguration proves that belief and confession isn’t much until you’ve actually experienced the thing you’re talking about.

But here’s where things get tricky. How did these young fishermen ultimately experience God?

Through an overshadowing cloud.

Apparently the purpose of this epiphany isn’t to reveal every mystery.

It was through a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night that God had led the Israelites out of slavery. Of course this scene is also a way of portraying Jesus as a continuation of the prophets of Israel. God used Moses to liberate the Israelites out of slavery, and then to give them the Law on Mt. Sinai, where Moses’ appearance was also transfigured whenever he would meet with God on the mountain. Through all of this Moses was given the responsibility of representing God, as God told him before going to Pharaoh “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh.” Elijah was known as the greatest of the prophets, and also represented God, since the prophets were known for speaking on God’s behalf. And then there’s Jesus, on a mountain with these Jewish heroes. And a cloud, who has also represented God says of Jesus “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” We see all these images that had represented God in Israel’s past: Moses, Elijah, the cloud, the mountain, all coming together in one big and terrifying event. Then Mark adds “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.”

The purpose of this scene is to show Jesus as the representation of God, equally significant to every other representation of God in Israel’s past. Skip to the end and you find that Jesus gives his followers that responsibility among his departure. And this is the complexity of God that we are left with. All we have is the revealed nature of God. All we have are representations. Religion points to God, but as for God, we are left with a mystery.

As the season of Epiphany comes to a close I want to be reminded that these epiphanies, whether in the New Testament or today, are epiphanies of the revealed nature of God. And if we fool ourselves into thinking that God has been fully revealed to us, or that we’ve caught God in just the right lines and boundaries to explain him, then we are dealing with something that is not God.

In his book, Everything Belongs, Richard Rohr says “The last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God.” Our appetite for certainty is as natural as our appetite for food. The mistake we can make with epiphanies is that we can take it to be the final revelation of God necessary to formulate who exactly God is. And yet the more tightly we hold onto that, the harder it is for us to experience God again in new and fresh ways. We must take these experiences absolutely seriously but hold them loosely, remembering that what we have experienced is simply pointing to God; while God rests beyond our appetite for certainty, slipping out of our tightly fisted grasps.

I choose to believe that something actually happened on a mountain somewhere in Galilee that made these men tell this story among the first Christians, ending up in the Gospel of Mark decades later. Perhaps it happened exactly how it is written or perhaps this account is the author’s best attempt at putting this miraculous event into words, using symbols, metaphors, and images that his readers would understand. Either way I believe that they did experience a transfiguration and that transfiguration continues today.

Epiphanies are all around us, waiting to be transfigured for what they truly are before our very eyes. All it takes is some humility, the ability to hold our notions of God a bit more loosely, and the desire to not only be born again, but to be born again and again and again.

Jesus Didn’t Have a ‘Messiah Complex’ (Mark 1:29-39 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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Or “Why Jesus Did NOT Crowd Surf”

Today’s passage is Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus’ reputation as a healer is perhaps the most undisputed claim among historical Jesus scholars. Of course Jesus was not the only healer, exorcist or wonder worker in first century Palestine. ‘Wonder worker’ was a very common occupation and everyone in Galilee knew of these men, whether they were Jews proclaiming to be performing miracles by the power of God, or Gentiles performing ‘magic’, which was against both Jewish and Roman law. What set Jesus a part however from the others is that he healed people and exorcised demons free of charge. In Jesus’ day no one else was doing this kind of thing without requiring compensation. We may read these stories of huge crowds chasing Jesus begging to be healed and think that it was because they had never seen anyone healed before. Now we can see that the reason word may have spread so fast is because this man was healing and exorcising without requiring these poor individuals to empty their pockets.

According to cultural anthropologist, Bruce J. Malina, in the first century Jewish world, where the ideal was to be honorable, there were many subtle sensibilities that enforced this ideal in their culture. “The honorable persons never admit to initiation bonds or alliances with others; such things either ‘just happen’ or they are ‘asked by another’.” It was considered shameful to offer your services to someone because it “may be interpreted as presuming or imposing on others, trying to get something to which they may not be entitled.” This is why we don’t see Jesus volunteering to heal people, but he is always sought out and asked by others. It’s Simon who asks Jesus to heal his mother-in-law and it’s Jesus who asks the disciples to follow him. The only two people who asked to follow Jesus (offer their service) in Luke 9:57-62 aren’t fit to be his followers in Jesus’ eyes. The rest of Jesus’ followers follow him after he heals them. This happened several times. They asked for Jesus’ healing (for his service), he healed them, and then they followed him (serving him). This is why Simon’s mother-in-law’s first instinct is to serve Jesus after he heals her.

Malina also points out that most people did not thank Jesus after he healed them. It was shameful to express gratitude or compliment someone of equal status because it would imply that the relationship of mutual obligation is over and that they could not be compensated. Instead of thanking Jesus people usually “praised God from whom good health comes, further implying that they might have to interact with Jesus again should illness strike later. To thank Jesus would mean that the relationship is over.” It was honorable, however, to compliment or express gratitude to a person of higher status, but still considered a sign that no further interactions should be expected. Jesus seems to discourage this treatment of him, such as refusing to be called ‘Good Teacher’ in Mark 10, saying “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” We also see this attitude when Jesus tells people to not tell anyone of their healing after he heals them, telling his disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, and not letting demons speak while casting them out “because they knew him.”

What we see in this passage is that Jesus joins in these open-ended and unfinished relationships with all these people that he heals…and then he leaves. There is always a great amount of confusion, frustration, and sometimes even violence whenever Jesus leaves a town. Usually we interpret these scenes to mean that these townspeople are just being strangely selfish, wanting to keep Jesus to themselves or something. However, Jesus is always the strange one in all these situations of leaving, not the townspeople.

If we see Jesus as a pretentious know-it-all, imposing his ‘much needed abilities’ on everyone then we’re talking about a completely fictitious Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t have a Messiah complex, having an inflated sense of ability and privilege, or holding himself at a higher status than other individuals. Jesus didn’t act or live like that. We find it easier to imagine a crowd surfing Jesus rather than the real Jesus who ran away from each crowd much before they would consider it. Right at the point where he knew that people understood who he was he knew they would want to exalt him. Instead of basking in their exaltations he leaves to the next town. He does this through every town, telling his disciples that this is leading to an execution, not a throne.

Again and again Jesus gathers these huge crowds and gives them the message that the kingdom of God has arrived, whether that’s through teachings or healings, and when they get it he leaves the crowd there. Mark says that the whole city was gathered at the door of Simon’s house. Jesus gives them the picture of the arrival of the kingdom of God and then he leaves, perhaps to allow them to turn to each other. Throughout Jesus’ whole ministry he is trying to show his followers that this kingdom of God thing is collaborative.

Desmond Tutu once misquoted Augustine of Hippo, giving us the brilliant phrase: “God without you won’t; you without God can’t.” In other words God won’t bring this kingdom of God without your collaboration, and you can’t collaborate in this kingdom of God without the help of God. This is why I believe Jesus gathers crowds, reveals the kingdom of God, and leaves, again and again.

This is Epiphany! The Church Calendar season of Epiphany is ending soon as we prepare to enter into Lent so let us try to understand the full Epiphany of Christ. To let this present reality of the kingdom of God flourish requires our collaboration. To turn around and go home after the big epiphany is to completely miss the point of Jesus’ life and message. To follow Jesus is to do what he did and to be what he was in the world today. Between the major epiphanies of the divine that we experience we are to collaborate in this revealed kingdom of God by being the body of Christ; the hands and feet, the flesh and bones, the blood and skin of Jesus. This is the purpose of the Epiphany of Christ. To miss this is to miss everything.

We All Can Use an Exorcism (Mark 1:21-28 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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Today’s passage is Mark 1:21-28, where we are introduced to Jesus as an exorcist for the first time. Even though the specific miracles that are attributed to Jesus in the Gospels cannot be historically proven historians who spoke for and against Jesus during the centuries after his life all admit his reputation as a miracle worker. It is irrelevant to try to explain away his miracles with circumstantial science or his encounters with demon possession as encounters with mental illness. All that we can do is discuss how the people of his day viewed these events in order to allow a deeper Truth to be revealed.

In the Old Testament the word ‘demon’ is only mentioned a couple times, and it’s used to refer to the foreign gods that the Israelites went to worship when they had “forgotten the God that gave them birth” (Deut.32:17). This is deeply connected with Mark’s use of ‘unclean spirit’, because to refer to something as unclean in the Jewish world is to comment on its right to enter the Temple, where they believed God had dwelled. Mind you, the right to enter the Temple was just as significant as your identity as a Jew. God had commanded them time and time again “Be holy because I am holy”. ‘Holy’ means ‘set apart’; set apart from uncleanliness, but also set apart to be God’s people. To be unclean was not just a threat to your morality, but more importantly it was a threat to your identity.

So for the Jews of Jesus’ day to proclaim that a man was possessed by an unclean spirit was to proclaim that something strange, foreign and destructive had manifested in him, making him forget ‘the God who gave them birth’.

We must also look at the equally important developing conditions that the Jews were put under by the Roman Empire. John Dominic Crossan makes the brilliant connection between demon possession and colonial oppression by looking at the sociological studies of Barrie Reynolds. The African Lunda-Luvale tribes had a term for possession by ancestral spirits called mahamba. After groups of Europeans had invaded and forced political control on certain African societies, the Lunda-Luvale tribes had a new term for much a deadlier version of mahamba. They called it bindele, the Luvale word for ‘European’. Cases of demonic possession and exorcisms skyrocketed. Crossan claims “colonial exploitation is incarnated individually as demonic possession.”

The occupying Roman government had discredited the Jews’ ancestral traditions and culture, and imposed on them their own social and cultural order, under the rule of Caesar. No wonder an unclean spirit calls itself ‘Legion’ four chapters later in Mark’s Gospel. ‘Legion’ was a term used to refer to the Roman troops.

The strange and foreign ‘demons’, that Deuteronomy spoke of, were no longer something on the other side of the hill. They were now instituted in God’s Temple, in God’s synagogues, and in God’s people. I imagine it to be hard to not feel unclean as a Jew in the 1st century. It’s easy to see how this violent and traumatic cultural clash would cause a similar clash in the minds of the oppressed. It had disordered their sense of self. So was mental illness simply the case or was there an actual possession of some spirit that spoke for the man? I honestly don’t know and I think we miss the point if we try to decide the specifics of what this man was experiencing.

The real interesting thing about this story is that the reason Mark tells this story is not to convey an action packed scene that would capture the reader’s attention. He’s also not particularly concerned with giving a historical account to the events of Jesus’ life. Mark is an evangelist, not a historian. Mark is telling this story to comment on the much larger issue of authority.

Mark begins this scene with Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the gathered audience being astounded at Jesus’ teaching “as one having authority, and not as the scribes (or teachers of the religious law).” After the exorcism Mark says “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.’” After all, if you looked at how they had been living, who appeared to have the authority? Rome or God? That was a tough question to answer in the 1st century. When one nation had conquered another nation it was commonly thought that they had also conquered that nation’s God. Rome had appeared to have conquered their God, and subsequently taken the authority as well. Rome had even taken control of the priesthood and picked their own priests to administer sacrifices at the Temple.

The teachings of the scribes were not a challenge to the authority of Rome; they simply cooperated in their comfortable position of a higher social class than the majority of Jews in Galilee. Jesus’ purpose in this event is to take back authority from the kingdom of Caesar and reestablish the authority of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is a present reality that proclaims the rule and reign of God here and now. The kingdom of God invites us to remember the ‘God who gave us birth’ and to return to who we were always meant to be in this God. Jesus is reminding people of who they are and why they’re here.

If we look at today’s society we see all kinds of reasons to be psychologically disordered, cluttered and conflicted individuals. Every day we have other stories of who we are and why we’re here forced on us; so much so that some of us have even become cold and closed off to people’s attempt to tell us who we really are and what we really need. I see Jesus in this story removing the clutter that had estranged this man’s identity from being a child of God. Jesus is removing all the junk that had been heaped onto his original self. Jesus is bringing order back to the disorder of this man’s consciousness; or even his soul.

What I also sense in this story isn’t that Jesus was the only one who was able to have authority over these things, but rather, he was the only one using it. As I’ve said before: the Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus as the model of life that we can step into. I believe that Jesus is showing this group of people that they actually always had authority over this disordered clutter that threatened their identity. They just let those things have authority over them. When I say that we have authority over these things, what I mean is that we have the choice to let these things in or to remove these things from ourselves.

Jesus can remove all the clutter in our lives that can get in the way of remembering who we really are. This is the first miracle that Mark decides to present to us: Jesus restoring brokenness into wholeness. I think we all can use a miracle like that in our lives. I think we all can use a purification of all the things inside of us that make us feel unclean and damaged. And one of the first things that Mark wants us to know is that Jesus is in the business of doing just that. I hope this good news will give you that primal astonishment that Jesus’ first witnesses experienced in that synagogue: radically surprised at the authority that we’ve always had access to.

The Dangerous Way (Mark 1:14-20 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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A Roman coin with the face of Augustus Caesar circled with “Imperator Caesar, son of god, consul for the 6th time, defender of the liberty of the Roman people” in Latin.

Today’s passage is Mark 1:14-20. Last time we were in Mark Jesus had just been baptized by John the baptizer, letting John take the superior role. After this event Jesus went into the wilderness where John the baptizer had emerged from. Matthew and Luke tells us he fasted for forty days while he was there. Fasting was a common practice for John’s disciples who were awaiting the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

It is possible that Jesus had become John’s disciple before beginning his ministry, at least for a short time. After all, the Gospels make it clear that John the baptizer’s purpose is to prepare the way of the Lord. What if that preparation was more personal? What if Jesus’ message of “Repent and believe in the good news” was influenced by John’s proclamation of “a baptism of repentance.”

After John is arrested Jesus goes back to Galilee to take John’s ministry to the next step, “proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near (or is at hand); repent, and believe in the good news.’” John’s message was about the kingdom coming and Jesus’s new message after leaving John is that the kingdom has now arrived.

Mark says Jesus goes proclaiming the ‘good news’, or ‘gospel’, or in Greek: euaggelion. Historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan says something along the lines of “Trying to understand Jesus without the context of Roman imperialism is like trying to understand Martin Luther King Jr. without the context of racism and segregation in America.” The prefix con- means with. Con-text must goes with the text; it’s not just interesting background. So we must also address the political dimension of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God.

First of all, I am not trying to turn Jesus into a political figure. Rather I am saying he already was one because in the 1st century there was absolutely no difference between religion and politics. They didn’t have any such categorization. To proclaim that you are ushering in the kingdom of God is to be simultaneously proclaiming the ushering out of the kingdom of Caesar. This was an act of high treason, and the reason the Roman government executed Jesus. Every religious statement he made was also a political one, in subversion of the imperial cult that worshiped Caesar as God. After all, we have plenty of evidence that Augustus Caesar was given titles like Son of God, Lord, Liberator and Redeemer of the World much before Jesus began his ministry. Even before Jesus was born the leading Roman poet, Horace, proclaimed that Jupiter (or Zeus) had assigned the task of atoning for the guilt of generations of sin to Augustus Caesar, who was Mercury (or Hermes) incarnate.

A euaggelion is what Roman soldiers proclaimed each time they gave the ‘good news’ of Caesar’s latest military victory, furthering his control over the world; which from the Empire’s point of view was furthering global peace under the rule of Caesar.

Even Mark’s quote of Jesus’ euaggelion is placed within the text like propaganda. This quote isn’t put on Jesus’ lips as a quote in any particular scene. Rather it’s put in there as a summary of the larger message, even ending it with “believe in the euaggelion.” Mark is using the same strategy as the Roman Empire, but proclaiming a better euaggelion, under the rule of God; bringing peace through justice, rather than Caesar’s peace through victory.

Continuing the passage, Jesus recruits Simon and his brother Andrew while they were fishing along the Sea of Galilee. “Follow me,” Jesus says, “and I will make you fish for people.” In this scene Jesus is not just being witty about their profession as fishermen. He is also referencing a prophecy in Jeremiah 16, which dreams of the restoration of Israel, and bringing them back to the Land God had promised them (the land that Caesar now ruled):

For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors. I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them…

Shortly after, Jesus recruits James and John, the sons of Zebedee. We saw how John the baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, and now if we pay attention we see that the rest of the story is Jesus preparing the way for his disciples. Jesus is recruiting these fishermen that Jeremiah prophesied  would help restore Israel. After all it is not Jesus who starts Christianity. His followers do.

Like I’ve said in the previous posts, the Gospel writers are evangelists, so their main purpose is not to write what happened, but to show how this story tells what it is happening ever presently. The life of Jesus is the model that we step into. In the way that John the baptizer prepared the way for Jesus, Jesus has prepared the way for his disciples. From there the disciples prepare the way for Christians in times to come by spreading this Way through writings such as The Euaggelion According to Matthew, The Euaggelion According to Mark, The Euaggelion According to Luke, and The Euaggelion According to John. You get it.

This Way, however, is dangerous. Believing in this counter-euaggelion would get you killed. John was arrested, and eventually beheaded while preparing the way. Jesus was tortured and executed while preparing the way, and most of his disciples were executed while preparing the way as well. This call is one of absolute selflessness. It’s a call to sacrificial love. It’s a call to give all your energy to this radical kingdom of God. The kingdom of God has arrived and it is a present reality that we step into. Yes, it’s risky and counter-cultural but it’s about bringing the world back together through justice and peace rather than victory and domination.

The invitation to believe in this counter-euaggelion is a challenge to which path are you going to choose: the Way that Caesar and powerful men like him have prepared? Or the Way that John the baptizer, Jesus and his fishermen prepared? Are you going to choose war or peace? Domination over the weak or justice for all? Revenge or forgiveness? Arrogance or humility? Selfishness or generosity? Indifference or love? The kingdom of Caesar or the kingdom of God?

To live in the present reality of the kingdom of God is to simply believe that intentionally engaging in acts like peace, justice, love, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, generosity, etc. is a better way to live. Will it get you in trouble? Yes. Will it make you have to swallow your pride and put aside what you think you deserve? Absolutely. Will it require you to sacrifice a lot of what you hold dear? Definitely. But will it make you a better person, who is at peace with yourself, the world and God? Yes, yes and yes! And that is the Way, prepared for us to follow Jesus into, and we’re just getting started.

The Flesh of God is the Flesh of the Oppresed (John 1:43-51 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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As I explained in my last post I am combining my interests in liturgy and the Historical Jesus of Nazareth by blogging through the Revised Common Lectionary’s Gospel portions every week. Hope you enjoy.

John’s gospel, being the last Gospel written, is clearly different from the three that preceded it. Here’s why. John’s purpose was to show his audience that Jesus was divine, and in fact God himself. John’s Gospel is highly theological, explaining almost every event after he writes it. John wants his gospel to be extremely simple, with no room for confusion about Jesus’ divinity. So John’s Jesus is more cleaned up, very powerful and very much in control than the Jesus we find in Matthew, Mark and Luke. When we understand John as an evangelist, and not a historian we can see John’s purpose for this was not to try to change history. He did this because he needed to demonstrate Jesus’ power and divinity to a persecuted Christian community facing a constant threat of survival that made them question Jesus’ power and divinity.

This brings us to today’s text: John 1:43-51. Jesus recruits Phillip as his disciple and Phillip tries to recruit Nathanael, saying “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael responds: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”

New Testament scholar, Reza Aslan describes Nazareth like this:

Ancient Nazareth rests on the jagged brow of a windy hilltop in lower Galilee. No more than a hundred Jewish families live in this tiny village. There are no roads, no public buildings. There is no synagogue. The villagers share a single well from which to draw fresh water. A single bath, fed by a trickle of rainfall captured and stored in underground cisterns, serves the entire population. It is a village of mostly illiterate peasants, farmers, and day laborers; a place that does not exist on any map…It is, in short, an inconsequential and utterly forgettable place.

Mark 6:3 says Jesus was a carpenter in this village; tekton in Greek, which did not mean carpenter in any way that we understand carpenters today in the modern world. Tekton is better understood as builder, or a day laborer. John begins his Gospel by saying that Jesus was the Word of God made flesh, but as a tekton, that flesh belonged to the second lowest social and economic class; just below peasants, and just above slaves and beggars. Upper-class Romans even used the term, tekton as a swear word to refer to illiterate peasants. Mark’s the only one to refer to Jesus as a tekton. Matthew refers to him as the son of a tekton. Luke and John don’t mention it at all.

So if you are an evangelist and want to convince people that this guy is the Messiah it definitely would not help your argument to include where Jesus was from. Of course it helped a little for John to not include the part about Jesus being a tekton, but you couldn’t be much else if you were from Nazareth. This was the man who the Jews expected to liberate the Jews like Moses had, and free the Jews from the oppression of the occupying Roman government.

Like I said in the last post: as evangelists the Gospel writers’ main purpose was not to write about what happened, but to show us how this story of Jesus can show us what’s happening. I think it’s incredibly fascinating that when God became flesh and blood to live among us, he chose to be born as the last person you would ever want to be. Imagine God becoming flesh in the 17th century as a Native American, who had witnessed thousands of his own people massacred by English and Dutch mercenaries. Imagine God becoming flesh in the 18th century as an African slave, abducted and thrown on a ship to America. Imagine God becoming flesh in the 19th century as an Irish farmer, forced by the British onto the shores of Ireland to starve after a genocide of 2,000,000. Imagine God becoming flesh in the 20th century as Jew, being tortured in Auschwitz.

Through what oppressed group would God become flesh today in 2015?

Nathanael changes his mind about Jesus after discovering that Jesus supernaturally saw him sitting under the tree before they met. Jesus responds to Nathanael’s praise of him with a promise: “You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

This verse is the first example of something extremely interesting that John does all throughout his Gospel that usually goes unnoticed in our English translations. Several times in John’s gospel we see Jesus, in the middle of a conversation with one other person, suddenly change the singular ‘you’ (sy in Greek) to the plural ‘you’ (hymin). This isn’t Jesus starting off talking to one person and then turning to address multiple people. This happens several times in John’s Gospel even when Jesus is alone with someone. Understanding John as not a historian, but an evangelist helps us see why John does this. Wherever there is a plural ‘you’ John is having Jesus continue to the conversation in the story, while simultaneously having Jesus speak to the community that John wrote it for.

Since the Gospels are always talking about what is happening we can also say that John is having Jesus speak to us as well in these moments. The verse I just quoted contains the plural form of ‘you’ each mention of the word. John has Jesus tell Nathaniel and the persecuted community he is writing to “You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Jesus’ promise at the end of this passage is a promise to Nathanael about the journey ahead, it’s a promise to the readers of the story that Jesus has greater things planned in the story if you keep reading, but it’s also a promise to a group of people that struggled in seeing God as able to show them something greater. In the middle of suffering this promise is the hardest thing to believe.

Today we celebrate Marin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, in memory of his honorable and holy fight for the advancement of civil rights and racial equality. It’s been almost 50 years since his tragic death and several Americans still don’t see the racial equality that men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. fought so hard for.

Today I hope we can remember that Jesus arose from within one of the most oppressed communities within one of the most oppressed nations in history. And that incarnation has continued ever since. God did become flesh in those massacred Native American tribes, those African slaves, those starving Irish, those Jews in concentration camps, and all those that are under the same type of oppression today. God is on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the exploited and abused wherever they are in the world and God chooses the flesh of the least of these to make himself known. And that is what the season of Epiphany is commemorating: the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles; to those who were not under the same oppression.

I hope this promise that was originally given to a threatened community unsure of survival can comfort those who also feel threatened and without hope. Martin Luther King Jr. and those like him brought us far, and let us praise God for that. And I pray today that you will even have the faith to believe Jesus’ promise that he gives Nathanael and us in the midst of praise: “You will see greater things than these.”

So trust Jesus’ promise to you that John gave us 2,000 years ago. The story isn’t over. There will be suffering, and pain, and misery, but there will also be joy, and peace, and miracles. The miracles are coming and it starts with trusting that they will actually come.

It All Starts With Humility (Mark 1:4-11 from the Lectionary Gospel Reading)

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Alright so I’m a very curious and fascinated person if you couldn’t tell. Two things I’ve become very fascinated with over the last year is Liturgical Church traditions and the life of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

So I’m going to combine those two interests this year and try my best to blog through the Gospel portions of the Revised Common Lectionary every week of this year. The Revised Common Lectionary is used by a wide array of Christian denominations such as Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians, all reading and teaching from the same passages each Sunday. You can keep track here.

Even though I’m already late I wanted to start with last Sunday’s reading and start posting today. The Gospel portion was Mark 1:4-11. I’ll usually be reading from the NRSV.

John the baptizer is reenacting the Exodus story right in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Moses had led the Israelites from the bondage of slavery, to that same Jordan River to go in, and come out of the Jordan River as free people. From there the mission was to the land that God had promised to give to the Israelites’ ancestors. We see John the baptizer following the same pattern through his baptism in the same Jordan River: freeing these Jews from the bondage of sin by going into the Jordan River and out of the Jordan River as forgiven people, free from their sin. Even the word repentance that is being used in this passage is the Greek, metanoia, which means to change one’s mind. Repentance is transformation, reminiscent of the Israelite’s transformation from slaves to God’s people.

Back to the Exodus story, we know that Moses actually isn’t the one that crosses the Jordan and leads the Israelites into the Promised Land. Moses leads them there, but his successor, Joshua, takes them to the Promised Land. And of course John the baptizer says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me’. And what is his name? Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, which was a common alternative of Yehoshuah, which means Joshua. In the same way that Joshua was Moses’ successor to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, Jesus is being framed as John the baptizer’s successor to lead God’s people into the Kingdom of God.

It may be hard for some Christians to imagine Jesus as John the baptizer’s successor. Jesus is supposed to be top dog from beginning to end. A guy like John the baptizer should be his servant, not his predecessor. Even John the baptizer seems to think so in the rest of his proclamation about Jesus’ coming: “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” Even so, we see all throughout Jesus’ life that he was never afraid of appearing inferior or taking a servant’s role. Jesus finds this wild man in the desert and joins in his baptism.

Mark says that as Jesus was coming up from the water “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Once again Mark is giving his Jewish readers an obvious nudge to the opening verses of Genesis: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God (or the Spirit of God) swept over the face of the waters.” The Hebrew word used here is ruach which can mean spirit, breath, or wind, and sometimes in the Hebrew Scriptures it seems to mean all of those at once. The Hebrew word here for swept is rachaph, which is also used in Deuteronomy 32:11: “As an eagle stirs up its nest and hovers over its young…the Lord alone guided him”. So Mark’s first readers understood that creation began with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters like a bird, and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry begins with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of the Jordan like a dove.

We see all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures that God is defined not by things, or locations, but by events. Creating the universe, freeing the Israelites from slavery, and giving them the Promised Land were the events that every Jew used to define God. Mark is telling his audience that there is a new set of events happening for God’s people through this man, Jesus. And how does it all begin? Jesus takes the humble role and submits to John the baptizer and his baptism. The result? A voice from heaven calling him “Beloved,” and saying “with you I am well pleased.” Now this is before Jesus’ ministry. Jesus hasn’t done anything. He’s just a poor builder from Nazareth born of a teenager that her friends and family didn’t trust, and his ministry begins with the primal blessing of God: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

It is very important to understand that the Gospel writers were not historians. They were evangelists. Their main purpose wasn’t to write about what happened, but how this story of Jesus can show us what is happening. And that happening remains ever present. Jesus is the model that we step into. In Romans Paul says we are baptized into Christ Jesus. Also much like Jesus, he says that the Spirit of God makes us children of God, and if we’re children of God then we’re also joint heirs of God along with Christ.

So once again, how does this process begin? With humility and submission. It begins with going into the unpredictable wilderness humble and submissive to find your belonging as child of God. I need to be reminded of this constantly. Embracing my identity as a child of God must always come first and foremost from a place of humility. In America today we may hear a lot of Christians complaining about being persecuted. Sometimes this can come from a place of pride, where we think “I’m a child of God! They shouldn’t be treating me like this!” But Jesus said that because they persecuted him we will also be persecuted, and the type of persecution he was talking about was way more violent than insults. Be humble.

Sometimes we can also get frustrated at God for not giving us what we want and we think “Come on! You say I’m your child! Shouldn’t you care about what I want and give it to me??” This is clearly approaching our identity as children of God from place of pride. It is not a right to be a child of God. It is a gift, and one freely given. Gratitude is another thing I’m trying to get better at. With gratitude and humility I won’t be so anxious and frustrated. When you let everything pass through a filter of humility first the world doesn’t seem to be all that awful.

So, I would like to end this with the profoundly relevant Litany of Humility. It’s one of the most important prayers I’ve come across and I pray it often. I hope it does the same thing for you as it did for me.

LITANY OF HUMILITY:
O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
Deliver me, Jesus
From the fear of being humiliated,
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
Deliver me Jesus,
That others may be loved more than I,
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.