Living the word

Choosing to Love

Love binds and builds, heals and hallows, redeems and restores. A broken world can expect all this and more, say our Johannine scriptures, when God’s power courses mystically through human events. John 10 finds the shepherd Jesus foretelling self-sacrificial love for the sheep. In John 15, Jesus calls the faithful to be willing to lay down their lives for their friends.

1 John 4 focuses on the intimate nature of God’s love for us, which evokes our love for others, while the next chapter equates the love of God with keeping the divine commandments. On the stage of Acts 1, 4, 8, and 10, the fruit-bearing and inclusive nature of divinely inspired love is dramatized by the great cast that is the early church.

This month’s passages offer both a head-on command to love and a traveler’s guide to the nature of love itself. John makes up only 10 percent of the New Testament, yet it provides a full third of the references to love. “Love” appears in John more often as a verb than a noun. Feelings won’t suffice. Actions must prevail.

The Holy One leads us beside still waters and restores our souls, whether we are Gentiles, eunuchs, or the homeless of Detroit. This power of life originates from God in every moment, forming living, healthy relationships.

God chose to enter history and love us. We must choose to love others and head into a world that doesn’t like those who love unconditionally.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

May 7

A Shepherding Love

Acts 4:5-12; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:16-24; John 10:11-18

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Sojourners Magazine May 2006
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Secrets Uncovered

The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God. This is a month to explore truth-telling. With Easter providing the median of these five weeks, we travel in utter darkness and then on to the brightest light of salvation. The worst of human nature and the best of human love are revealed along the way.

In these readings, the awe of the mystical Johannine gospel and letters meets the justice in the prophetic words of Jeremiah and Isaiah and in the unified, egalitarian early church community of Acts. Ultimately, the mystical and the prophetic form one unifying truth in the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus in John 20 and Luke 24.

The whole truth? In contemporary America, we have a silent compact that we will not challenge the constant barrage of untruthful or less-than-truthful things that we are told each day. Are we awash in official secrets and corporate deceptions? These scriptures remind us that the redemptive power of the good news remains covered up a lot of the time, too.

Two groups populate these passages. Religious leaders (and sometimes apostles) put a sheen of religiosity and rhetoric over lethal conniving and cover-ups. The chief priests look for a way to arrest Jesus “by stealth” and to kill him (Mark 14:1-2). Meanwhile, prophets and preachers—and the Son of the Blessed One—reveal both unseemly secrets as well as truths that illuminate the way to salvation for all.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.


April 2

In Death, Life

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

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Sojourners Magazine April 2006
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Covenant Living

Covenants order our lives, our faith communities, and, in the best of times, our nations. The promises and agreements God makes to us, and that we make to one another, are sometimes made binding by oaths or rituals. Sometimes God simply sends someone down from the mountain with a covenant fully formed and sealed.

The covenants of marriage, baptism, ordination, and church membership echo the great historic covenants, such as God’s agreement with Noah after the flood and Moses’ receiving of the Ten Commandments. The biblical covenants are relevant to our lives today because their wisdom—and power to order societies—has much to teach us about a covenantal way of relating to God, to others, and to the created order.

The divine-human covenants highlighted in this month’s readings offer a “two-way street” of rights, responsibilities, and relationships. Indeed, watch Jesus turn the tables when they are violated! God’s promises and future-oriented commitments surprise us. In Genesis 9, God says creation will never again be destroyed by God’s action. In Genesis 17, God pledges an everlasting involvement with, and blessing of, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants.

Over time, biblical covenants were replaced by the laws of feudal societies, kingdoms, and nation-states. Nonetheless, our fragmented, anxious times cry out for the justice, security, and compassion of covenantal living. From secular international treaties to church polity, we see the desire of peoples to have what a community bound by covenant provides.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.


March 5

Sealed with Rainbows

Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15

Consider the magnitude of the announcement God makes to Noah: “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants....[N]ever again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Genesis 9:9-11).

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Sojourners Magazine March 2006
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Healing People, Healing Nations

With one hand God “builds up Jerusalem” and with the other “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:2-3). While structures must change for people to find healing, individuals must give up their sinful ways and turn to God to redeem their nations.

Jesus’ healing stories highlighted in this month’s lections form neither the alpha nor the omega of his ministry. In their larger context, these healings follow his proclamation of the coming reign of God and precede his journey toward the cross and resurrection. Healing is the byproduct of lives that are deeply touched by love and liberation, whether that liberation is from brutal oppression or one’s own sinfulness.

Jesus’ ministry takes place under Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, a protectorate of the Roman Empire. The healing power of compassion and sacrifice faces the triumphal power of systems striving for hegemony.

Any parallels with our search for healing and salvation—as persons and as a people—in our time and place? Is Get Rich or Die Tryin’ just a current movie or is it also a national mantra? In our pursuit of wealth and power, it is easy to overlook our own health and, intentionally or not, stand in the way of wholeness for countless others.

In the weeks ahead, the prophet and the Savior respond to the great good news of ascension, healing, and transfiguration with “keep silent,” “say nothing to anyone,” and “tell no one.” What’s up with that?

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

February 5

Dignity

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

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Sojourners Magazine February 2006
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Making a Movement

In Kashmir, Niger, Honduras, and parts of every U.S. city, the situation is urgent. Thankfully, so is God’s persistent love. It can be found in movements for positive social transformation—seen and unseen—throughout the world.

This month, words from the Word highlight the good news that God has acted first, in creation and in history, for justice and peace. Even better, God continues to act first through people, events, and movements at once spiritual and social. Those who would participate are never left to dangle from first principles and lofty doctrines. “Follow me,” says a voice, into the ongoing action.

The Creator forms the heavens, the earth, and the people—weaving them in secret and placing words on their tongues. The Christ casts out unclean spirits, teaches with authority, and overcomes law with love. The Holy Spirit blows over the waters, lowers the threshold for times to change, and amplifies the voices of a younger Samuel and an older Moses.

The encounters and events in this month’s readings give spiritual power and purpose to the great movements of faith and liberation.

In this new calendar year, try on this bias for action. Three of the five gospel lessons are from Mark, where things happen fast and the author likes the word “immediately.” Bureaucracies can accomplish important things, but just now we have to ask a different question: What makes for a movement?

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

January 1

Names

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

The lectionary verses this week elucidate the kind of naming and name-praising that emerge from intimate, honoring relationships between God and people. They are suggestive of the sorts of naming possible when human relationships emulate this respectful “I—Thou” perspective.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2006
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The Beauty of Justice

The Beauty of Justice

What’s old is new. The prophetic words and visions of antiquity form key Advent themes in the story of John the Baptist, in the gospels of both Mark and John. A still-relevant voice cries out in the wilderness—the wilderness of biblical exiles and of the “other America” beaten anew by storm and recession. The time has come to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).

On this cosmic highway, prophets and poets can proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2) and the alternate rule of God’s justice. It is a sovereignty rooted in the Davidic kingdom, but born anew with the birth of the Prince of Peace. As God takes human form to dwell among us, humanity and all of creation prepare to sing of the beauty of “the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” brings good news, and announces salvation (Isaiah 52:7).

Although Isaiah first spoke to the vagaries of a particular community in exile, the flower of this prophetic tradition blossoms in these Advent and Christmas gospel lections. What, then, is new? The fullest revelation of God arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, the prophetic and the incarnational meet, in the beauty of justice and the very songs of redemption.

What’s new? “[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Isaiah’s words will regain more power than ever, so let’s prepare the way!

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

December 4
Building the Highway
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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A People's Identity

A People's Identity

We rise or fall together. God can use us as a faith-filled worldwide community to end starvation, bring wholeness, and staff the turning points of history. For those of us from faith traditions emphasizing solo salvation, these can seem like novel ideas. But they are at the theological heart of many of this month’s passages. The readings lead us to consider our corporate identity—both who we are now and who God calls us to become.
Repeatedly, we hear the one who speaks as the voice of many guiding a chapter in the Bible. Psalm 78:1 says, “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching.” In Psalm 123, the psalmist lifts up “my eyes,” but later speaks of “our eyes,” even “our soul” (italics added). Deborah judges Israel, a people, in Judges 4. In Ezekiel 34, the Lord judges between one group of “sheep” and another. In Matthew, Jesus delineates between the “sheep” and the “goats” in the gospel’s declaration of a final judgment.
Repeating who we are as a community of faith is a necessary redundancy if we have been raised, even spiritually and ethically, as rugged individualists. By the third week’s readings, Jesus makes clear the basis on which a people are judged: Whenever you feed the hungry or give water to the thirsty—or ignore the desperate state of the poor, he says, “you did it to me.”
The final week offers the reassurance that God continues to reform and create that people anew for just such a calling, even as a potter forms clay. In a beautiful way, form meets function with the many sculpted as one.

November 6
A Kairos Community
Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25; Psalm 78:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

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Sojourners Magazine November 2005
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Restorative Justice

From the iron curtain in Germany separating East and West,

From Jesus to Paul, the Christian community expanded from agrarian areas on the edges of Rome's reach to cities key to the empire. When reading Matthew, keep in mind that Herod Antipas ruled Galilee as a Roman protectorate. Locally, the Pharisees exercised dominant power in the synagogues, markets, and courts. This region's fertile lands provide the context for Jesus' vineyard parables, but remember that its many large villages lived under an occupation. Jesus contrasts that rule with the coming kingdom of God.

The good news is that reconciling "two or more gathered," forgiving 77 times, and inviting "both good and bad" to the wedding feast leads to a justice that restores relationships, shares the bounty, and redeems lives.

In Galilee, Jesus demonstrates a restorative justice that penetrates surface spirituality. He announces that there are tax collectors and prostitutes who will enter the kingdom of God ahead of respected religious and national leaders.

Perhaps these Galilean parables aren't so different from the large-scale dramas in this month's Exodus history and psalmist liturgy. Recovering the balance of power and the dignity of each person gives life and saving wholeness. What changes in Galilee is that God acts, through the person of Jesus, through a transformative justice that knows no end to forgiveness.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

September 4
Practicing Reconciliation
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2005
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A Change is Coming

A bush burns,

A bush burns, a baby floats, and an impudent disciple finally gets it: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16). The denouement in many of this month’s stories is found not so much in the action as in the extraordinary shifts of hearts and minds.

Joseph is sold into slavery and the Israelites fall into forced labor, but between his dreams and their mystical visions they follow God’s leading toward a land of milk, honey, and shalom.

Romans provides a spirituality of redemption and radical inclusiveness. Whether Jew or Greek, friend or foe, Paul beckons all who would be faithful to "not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds" (Romans 12:2).

More than once in these weeks, Peter is all wet, either literally or figuratively. Only when he takes a leap of faith does he land squarely on solid ground. Jesus’ response? "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18).

Dreamers and mystics, apostles and aliens in a strange land - those whose voices ring out in these narratives seek to change history in accordance with God’s will. Repeatedly, they discover they must first change their way of thinking.

Millennia later, everything has changed and nothing has changed. Hunger, the oppression of immigrants, the false hope of violence, the pit or the prison - we also hope a change is coming. For us, too, it will begin in our hearts and minds.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist who lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2005
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Watching for Seeds and Pearls

Watching for Seeds and Pearls

When the faithful welcome the breaking of God’s word into relationships, politics, and economics, hope arrives. Adopted as God’s sons and daughters, people begin to make the reign of God their greatest loyalty.

Our lectionary readings offer transcendent visions, but always in the service of where we are - incarnational theology. Isaac finds Rebekah. Jacob unites with Rachel. The pearl is found, the mustard seed takes root, and the 5,000 feast.

This month, divine messengers visit Jacob at night, once in a dream and once as he journeys, wrestling Jacob to a draw yet blessing him with a new name - Israel (Genesis 28 and 32). God intervenes in Paul’s life, demonstrating that as creation is redeemed, so too are the early Christians adopted as God’s children, just like the people of Israel (Romans 8 and 9).

There is nowhere we can go where God will not visit, bless, and reunite us. When Jesus comes, he loves and blesses the multitude. Social divisions and ongoing injustices in our time may be among the greatest heresies in the face of a kingdom-of-God theology.

Pause and consider: African Americans had a 10.8 percent unemployment rate last year, compared to 4.7 percent for their white counterparts. In 1960, black men earned only 50 cents for every dollar earned by white men; by the year 2000, the figure had only improved to 64 cents on the dollar. Will God’s divine messengers stop by?

July 3
The Dance of Blessing
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:10-17; Romans 7:15-25; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

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Sojourners Magazine July 2005
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