“All flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:1-6). Well, that depends.
It depends on where you are from. It depends on your country of origin. It depends on your religion. It depends on with whom you are associated. It depends on your race, your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation. The list of criteria for salvation, contrived predominantly from our many fears, is long according to the world as we know it today, but not according to the Gospel of Luke. And since Luke is providing a particular portrait of Jesus, not according to Jesus either.
This passage from Luke for the Second Sunday of Advent points to competing worldviews. The opening verses are deceptively subversive. Into the religious reigns and imperial kingdoms of the first century C.E., the word of God comes. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas, and Caiaphas will have to tend with the rule of the word of God, a rule that insists on salvation for all.
“We do not remember days,” the Italian poet Cesare Pavese said, “we remember moments.”
Pavese’s words have come to mind often as I’ve thought about Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States, particularly when people have asked me what the “best part” of covering the papal visit was for me.
My answer is always the same: hands down the best part was watching people see (and sometimes meet) Pope Francis in person for the first time.
I knew this was going to be a great trip. I did not know it would afford me a chance to scratch off the top item on my bucket list.
But when the iconic gospel singer Bobby Jones met with the band of international journalists I am traveling with on a fellowship from the East-West Center, he mentioned the song “Oh Happy Day” was so popular among his fans in Russia, Italy and Japan that he can’t get offstage there without singing it.
AN OLD Buddy Guy song is titled “First Time I Met the Blues.” I don’t remember the first time I met the blues, but I do remember that I was captivated by the music. For many years now, two of my passions have been listening to blues and studying the Bible. Gary W. Burnett, a lecturer in New Testament at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and an amateur blues guitarist, shares those passions. This book, he writes in the introduction, is his attempt “to combine in some ways these two passions and to be able to reflect on Christian theology through the lens of the blues.” He succeeds with a well-crafted synthesis of U.S. history, African-American history, the blues, and New Testament scholarship.
Blues music is one of the great contributions of African-American culture to the U.S. While rooted in the oppression of slavery and post-slavery Jim Crow, it speaks meaningfully to the experience of all people. It’s a music that grabs your soul and won’t let go. And Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is central to his message of life in the coming and present kingdom of God. It can also grab your soul and not let go. By juxtaposing blues lyrics with passages from the Sermon, Burnett shows the common themes that emerge.
As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. – John 15:9-12
War is always ugly. The loss of innocent lives is never easy to swallow. And yet, as tanks open fire on the humble homes of the Gazan poor and rockets rain down on a terrified Israeli populace we are compelled to ask, “How do we keep coming back to this profane and violent place called war?” Why do we consistently and continually fail to understand the simple principles of our own faith and the faiths of those who profess a belief in God?
These simple faith principles speak of a command to love one another and to have a deep and abiding respect for all life – especially innocent life. Then, why do we fail to love justice, peace, and mercy as God commands and seem so determined to visit such violence and destruction on our world and on one another?
Similar questions arise for me in my work as a pastor who labors in organizing people of faith to contend with the tough issues that we face daily in our country. Issues like the mass incarceration of our young, the struggle for human dignity by the poor, the lack of employment opportunities for those who desire only to feed their children and raise their families, and the millions who yearn to step out from the shadows of unjust immigration laws and be recognized as cherished citizens of an open and welcoming nation. These are the tough issues that bring me and so many other clergy and people of faith from the confines of the church into the streets and homes of those whose lives are tethered closest to the pain of injustice. In each of these instances the moral challenges seems so clear but the outcomes are incongruent with the faith principles that are designed to guide our hearts and direct our actions.
Right-wing politicians are fond of saying we need more Christian influence in American political life.
I don’t disagree with that. But I wonder if they have any idea what they are asking. For a nation guided by Christian principles would bear scant resemblance to their political agenda.
Take immigration, for example. Jesus practiced radical welcome, not the restrictive legalistic barriers envisioned by conservatives, and certainly not the denigration of dark-skinned immigrants and the unleashing of armed posses along the Rio Grande.
God’s people, after all, began as immigrants and refugees. God saw them as a “beacon” to all nations.
Our son, Mattias, is a complicated kid. He’s sweet, creative and remarkably intelligent. But to say he is strong willed would be underselling his capacity for intransigence.
When he was in preschool he, like many kids, went through a “naked phase.” He never wanted to have his clothes on at home (which was no small issue with regard to our furniture’s upkeep), and getting him dressed in the morning was part chore and part all-out war.
“We have one of these kids every year,” said his teacher, a seasoned veteran. “What you have to do is call his bluff.”
Every time I go to restock my face cream at the cosmetics vendor, inevitably the sales ladies point out the fact my skin is particularly dry. Oh wait, not just dry, they say, they are also seeing signs of crow’s feet and — gasp! — some dark circles under my eyes. They masquerade as skincare health professionals with fancy dermatology equipment to properly diagnose the ills of my skin. All this, of course, so they can sell me the magic anti-wrinkle cream. And do I buy it? I do. (Dang it, you weak-willed creature.)
I recently read a book titled, Winning the Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, who pinpoints this trend over the last hundred years of advertising coined “inadequacy marketing.” He summarizes this form of storytelling as follows:
“Inadequacy stories encourage immature emotions like greed, vanity, and insecurity by telling us that we are somehow incomplete. These stories then offer to remove the discomfort of those emotions with a simple purchase or association with a brand.”
The first step in adequacy marketing is to create anxiety.
When God coupled the earth with the breath of eternity, our souls and the soil were fused and our destinies perpetually intertwined. While many of us have been taught that human beings have dominion over the Earth, we have not understood that what we do to Mother Earth, we do to one another and to God.
Dominion theology has led to domination, abuse, and destruction of Mother Earth and human communities. Every time we strip the land of its diversity, we strip a layer of humanity from our collective souls. Soil is also a community of diverse beings — some visible to the naked eye, some microscopic. A diversity of beings distinguish fertile soil from lifeless dirt. When industrial agriculture or chemical spills make these beings homeless, our soil becomes dust and is gone with the wind. Regardless of their visibility to the human eye, maintaining the homes of microbes intact, is what keeps the land fertile for growing crops which feed human beings. Adding microbes to “the least of these” who deserve our protection is truly an act of self preservation.
Respect and protection is a recurring casualty of dominion theology in that dominated land requires dominated people to work it. Plantations required slaves, and agribusiness requires exploited immigrants. Generational shame was whipped into the minds of enslaved Africans as their backs were abused in cultivating the land. Over the course of 400 years, a healthy relationship with Mother Earth was one of those legacies lost, stolen, or strayed for many African Americans. Restoring a healthy relationship with the land is a vital prerequisite for our urban youth to turn their food deserts into an oasis of food sovereignty.
Easter Sunday marks the holiest, most exalted moment of the Christian year. In Easter services all over the world, trumpets and organs blast. Flowers transform churches with their brightness. Worship leaders boldly proclaim: “Christ is risen!” Congregations echo back: “Christ is risen indeed!” The cycle of celebration and repetition begins as it should — a festive proclamation of good news. In Christ God has overcome the powers of sin and death, freeing us to live with hope and promising us life. Not just life after death, but full life, divinely inspired life — life in the here and now.
Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!
Even in these festive moments, many people express insecurity regarding the quality of their own believing.
“Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.” -Psalm 68:31
The Bible is a multicultural book. This statement may sound controversial but archeology, history, and the text prove it to be true. In 2013 this controversy played out in the media when viewers of The Bible miniseries were upset that Samson was played by a black man. A second controversy occurred when a Fox News broadcaster confidently declared that Santa Claus and Jesus were white, yet when people researched original depictions of Saint Nicolas, they found pictures of a dark brown man. It appears that our faith has been distorted. As we celebrate Black History Month and prepare for Lent, how can uncovering the black presence in the Bible aid us in mourning against the sin of racism? One of the effects of racism is the whitewashing of history and sadly this has taken place even in our biblical studies.
The Roman Catacombs show biblical scenes painted by first- and second-century persecuted Christians, and their paintings clearly show people of color. What would Roman Christians gain from painting these characters black? What did these early Christians know and accept that seems unbelievable today?
"Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you hoped I had. Don’t waste a breath mourning ... For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain there can be no mercy. There is but one rule. Hunt or be hunted." - Francis Underwood
So ends the Shakespearean soliloquy at the end of the first episode of House of Card's highly anticipated second season.
Underwood lives by a very clear code of ethics: Get to the top and do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. For him, the end always justifies the means. And so, although it certainly made me wince to see what happens in Season 2's opening episode, I was left in awe at the show’s brutal honesty of what a life purely committed to power potentially looks like.
Some scenes perhaps strike us viewers as far from reality (Washington can't really be that bad, can it?!?), but other vignettes are far more plausible. Consider Underwood’s commendation of a congresswoman for making the cold, calculated decision to “do what needed to be done” by wiping out entire villages with missile strikes.
Her “ruthless pragmatism” merely makes Underwood smirk.
In missionary hands, the gospel was too often a bludgeon used to divide and conquer Native communities. Today, Indigenous theologians are finding redemptive power in that very same gospel.
"Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words" is a quote widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. It also seems to be the motto of Pope Francis. Instead of just talking about abstract doctrines, he consistently lives out his beliefs in public ways that have grabbed the world's attention. His example of humility, compassion, and authenticity resonate powerfully in Washington, where cynicism is rampant, pride remains even after the proverbial falls, and an ideology of extreme individualism has overtaken a significant faction within our politics.
The Pope's words and deeds fascinate us because they are genuine and selfless. How could a leader of global significance spend time cold calling pregnant women in distress, kissing the feet of young Muslim inmates, or embracing a disfigured man? What sorts of values motivate such behavior? These stories touched our hearts, but they appeared irrelevant to our politics.
Then the Pope started talking about our wallets, which, according to a several commentators on the far right, instantly transformed him into a threat to capitalism itself.
Can you imagine? I am now three score plus 10! According to measurements used during biblical times, a "score" was 20 years. Three score is 60 years. So three score plus ten, makes me 70. Moses put is this way in Psalms 90: "Seventy years are given to us! Some even live to eighty. But even the best years are filled with pain and trouble; soon they disappear, and we fly away." Well, I am not quite ready to fly away!
When I was a child, a 70-year-old person was truly ancient; like, really, really old. I imagined they were almost as old as dirt, salt, or the oldest Bible character, Methuselah. In my child's mind, 70 was too old to move fast, think hard, feel deeply, laugh out loud, dance gracefully, exercise intensely, and experience joy. Mostly, 70 year olds were just waiting to die. Right? Of course, they were definitely too advanced in years to think, feel, or act sexually, even though researchers say otherwise.
What is so amazing is that I feel many times better today than I felt at 60, 50, or even 40. 70 really IS the new 50!
Can you be scared into salvation?
For the past 41 years, Liberty University’s “Scaremare” has attracted thousands to its haunted attraction, where students in costumes deliver thrills and screams throughout a guided tour.
The university’s Center for Youth Ministries sponsors the annual October event, boasting to be one of the largest of its kind in the Southeast.
God looks like someone who shows patient commitment.
If that’s the case, then we don’t need Wikipedia articles to show us what God is like. We can catch glimpses of God in all sorts of places where people respond to the needs in front of them, whether they set out to do so or not. These glimpses can appear utterly ordinary, like a school bus driver whose commitment to children actually goes beyond transporting them. In this video, notice his presence in their lives, attending to them so none of them can roll away and gets lost in the shadows or cracks.
In the video, driver Jerry James utters a great line: “This is serious business.” He means more than piloting a bus full of children. He means his devotion to them: investing in young people’s lives in the few minutes he has with them every day. He does what he can.
Reza Aslan begins of his book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, with a prescient warning: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see. Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed” (xxxi).
I don’t think Aslan had himself in mind when wrote that statement, but you should be warned: the Jesus in Zealot is Aslan’s own false construction.
His central thesis is that the Jesus of history, and the God Jesus believed in, demanded violence in the face of political and religious oppression. Here’s one of the relevant passages:
[F]or those seeking the simple Jewish peasant and charismatic preacher who lived in Palestine two thousand years ago, there is nothing more important than this one undeniable truth: the same God whom the Bible calls a “man of war”(Exodus 15:3), the God who repeatedly command the wholesale slaughter of every foreign man, woman, and child who occupies the land of the Jews, the “blood spattered God” of Abraham, and Moses, and Jacob, and Joshua (Isaiah 63:3) the God who “shatters the heads of his enemies,” bids his warriors to bathe their feet in their blood and leave their corpses to be eaten by dogs (Psalm 68:21-23)—that is the only God that Jesus knew and the sole God that he worshipped. (122, emphasis in the original.)
The problem that I have with this passage is indicative of the problem that I have with the way Aslan constructs his Jesus. He constantly picks and chooses which verses from the Bible he uses to support his claim that Jesus was a warrior messiah whose goal was to violently overthrow the Roman and religious establishment. He peels away all passages that conflict with his construction so that he can show us what Jesus was truly like.
Well, what Aslan thinks Jesus was truly like.