Ever since I've been familiar with Luke 10:38-42, the lectionary gospel reading for this coming Sunday, I've been very uncomfortable with the way the question arising from the passage usually occurs in sermons: "Are you a Mary or a Martha?" Of course, the question attempts to get at priorities, but it seems unnecessarily reductionist in its dichotomy. It also assumes a static modus operandi which does not seem to take into account the context of the story itself. I'm also uncomfortable with the usually innocuous article "a" in front of both names, as if Mary and Martha are objects rather than subjects.
The obvious overarching point of the passage is that it's a "better" priority to spend time with Jesus, and that's fine as far as it goes. It's obviously true that our busyness and anxiety often get in the way of communion with the Lord. It's not that Martha does not love Jesus. She plainly does, as her "love language" manifests in preparing the house and meal for his presence. Mary and Martha are two distinct individuals offering their love for Jesus in two different ways. I do not think Jesus objects to Martha intention in the passage. Of course, he knows both Mary and Martha love him dearly. But he does say that Mary has "chosen what is better."
It is the hope of most Christ followers and Bible readers that when they read familiar passages, something new might arise in the spirit. I find this fresh reading is often most possible when the scriptures are read and discussed in a group setting. I have the pleasure of attending a weekly lectionary study group for such purposes. In our last meeting, a friend brought up a part of this passage I had never considered, and I was relieved to see the passage from a different, fresh angle.
This friend brought our attention to the unique action of Mary in this passage, particularly in relation to common and expected gender roles of the 1st century CE. At that time, in that cultural and historical place, it was not the custom, nor was it expected, that a woman would sit eye to eye with her Rabbi/Teacher and have a deep heart to heart. This was the domain of maleness. Yet, there is Mary, sitting at the Lord's feet, taking her place as a full disciple. Perhaps Martha thought this presumptuous as she asked - no demanded - that the Lord instruct Mary to help her with the chores. Jesus reply: "Don't be anxious or worry, but just focus on one thing - being with me."
In saying this, Jesus not only raises the importance of relationality and communion and "being with." He also subverts gender norms, allowing Mary (and Martha, if she so chooses), to release the anxiety of gendered performance and societal expectations so she/they can just be with one another. Jesus does not wants actors, fulfilling some heavy role. He just wants to be with us and us to be with him.
Although I am interested in politics, and believe our religious convictions apply to our political actions, I do not often delve into specific political figures on this particular blog. Issues, yes, but not specific people. This post will be an exception. Politically, we are living in exceptional times. It is really no surprise to anyone anymore that the US president, if not an outright xenophobe himself, willingly and purposefully panders to supporters in his base that are xenophobic. He has found it exceedingly beneficial, both in his election campaign of 2016 and now in his presidency, to create a culture of fear and an us vs. them mentality between citizens of the US and foreigners - particularly foreigners who are darker and poorer.
His most recent tweet no longer shocks us as it should, but it does serve to highlight his utilization of xenophobia and racism.What makes these tweets even more racist than xenophobic is that they obviously rely more on skin color than on country of origin, since three of the four women of color he refers to were born in the US, the fourth came to the US when she was 12, and all four are US citizens:
But these tweets are really just the most recent iteration of the presidential posture on "foreigners." I still cannot wrap my head around how he maintains the support of a significant percentage of white evangelicals in the USA when his positions (not just his character) are so diametrically opposed to the life and teachings of Christ.
There's a beautiful Greek work that appears twice in the New Testament, and is the exact opposite of the xenophobia that President Trump embodies and encourages in his supporters. This word is philoxenia, from two different Greek words meaning "brotherly love" (philo) and "foreigner" or "stranger" (xenia). The first of these passages is Romans 12:13 and the second is Hebrews 13:2. I'll leave them here and pray that the word does not return void.
"Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers." - Romans 12:9-13
"Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." - Hebrews 13:2
Of course, I'm thankful every day for the presence of Christ and a wonderful Christian community at St. Christopher's Episcopal in Pensacola (and Christ Church on Sunday evenings). But some Sundays, I'm just a bit more thankful. Today was one of those days. The sermons at both the morning and evening services today were centered on the gospel reading, Luke 10:1-11; 16-20. During the morning homily, Father Nick of St. Christopher's focused on peace and relationality (also a focus of the epistle reading found in Galatians 6:1-16. During the evening homily, the priest at Christ Church focused on the source of empowerment for Christian action.
In the gospel reading, Jesus says, "Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’"
The foundation of godly action and being is peace. It is beautiful, of course, when peace flows from one person to another, and is received. What is fascinating about this passage, though, is that peace returns to the person who offers peace, even when it is rejected. In other words, when someone responds negatively, or returns evil for good, the follower of Christ remains at peace. Our peace does not depend on others' actions or reactions. The source is the Prince of Peace. Chapter 6 of Paul's epistle to the Galatians reiterates this principle. When a brother or sister is found in a transgression, restoration should be done in a spirit of gentleness. And Paul says about those who follow such a rule that "peace will be upon them, and mercy."
Secondly, when peace if reciprocated, community is born, and the bedrock of community is relationship. Jesus says to "remain in the same house....and do not move from house to house." The peace of God born in the hearts of His children leads to relationship, and relationship with God and others leads to the kingdom: "The kingdom of God has come near to you." It is also within Christian relationship that the kingdom manifests in eating together and ministering (i.e. "curing the sick") to one another.
This evening, the priest from Christ Church highlighted another important part of this passage. At the beginning of the passage, the seventy were sent out, and at the end of the passage, the seventy returned, rejoicing and saying, "“Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
At first, the seventy were more excited about their ability to force the demons they encountered into submission. But Jesus makes sure they understand the real miracle. It's not that they have power to cure sicknesses and force demons into submission. The miracle - the more important factor - is their relationship with Christ. Yes, their work was important, but Who empowered that work was more important. Jesus tells them not to rejoice in the power they have, or the work that they do, but rather in the Person who has empowered and saved them. Where we start is important.
Independence Day is always the hardest day of the year for me to write about from a Christian perspective. This is primarily because I believe that to be truly Christian means to pledge allegiance solely to Christ and His kingdom, not to a flag or to a country or to a system of government. In a country for which civil religion (i.e. the god of democracy, capitalism, and a vague notion of personal freedom) has replaced true Religion (i.e. God in Christ), it cannot but be idolatrous to pledge allegiance to an entire system (and icons of that system) that makes a claim on the heart and mind.
In his lecture at Azusa Pacific University entitled "America's God," Stanley Hauerwas elucidates why American Protestantism was something other than Christian from the start. It is such that we glorify those willing to die and kill (blood sacrifices) for the nation, but give very little thought, if any at all, to God's explicit vision of the Church and His kingdom. The nation has become our god, and we simply co-opt Christian concepts and language to prop it up. As Hauerwas says, "The American church has failed to make clear that the "American God" is not the God we worship as Christians, the God who would have us baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."
The remedy is returning to "disciplines" of good theology and the sense of proper ecclesiastical and priestly authority. That sentence alone probably raises the blood pressure of good American Protestants because we've been so ingrained with the completely senseless idea that all opinions are equally valid (i.e. "Jesus is Lord, but that's just my opinion") and that authority begins and ends with the individual. But that's how American Protestantism has co-opted the Faith. If theology does not order one's life and thought processes towards friendship with God, it is not good theology.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his “Protestantism without the Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, wrote the following:
"God has granted American Christianity no Reformation. He has given it strong revivalist preachers, churchmen and theologians, but no Reformation of the church of Jesus Christ by the Word of God….American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of ‘criticism’ by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s ‘criticism’ touches even religion, the Christianity of the church and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics….In American theology, Christianity is still essentially religion and ethics…Because of this the person and work of Christ must, for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness."
You can view the lecture by Hauerwas below. His lecture begins at about the 12 minute mark in the first video.
Last Saturday, I took a pilgrimage with Episcopalian brothers and sisters to the Equal Justice Initiative's Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The museum takes the pilgrim through the history of America's original sin of slavery to modern-day mass incarceration. The memorial is dedicated to those - named and unnamed - who were brutalized through lynching and the effects of Jim Crow era laws.
Both the museum and the memorial shock one from an intellectual knowledge of certain aspects of our dark national history and present to a keen awareness of how that history penetrates every corner of American identity. As I moved through the memorial monuments, etched with the names of lynching victims by county and state, I was struck not only by the sheer number of victims, but also of the realization that entire families were often lynched together, that the civil authorities were often complicit in the lynchings, and that many of the lynchings were mass spectacles - often with thousands of people (including small children) attending and cheering on the gruesome violence.
Walking through the museum, I read how our system itself - the courts, the police, the politicians, and the religious leaders - more often than not explicitly supported, or even participated in, the lynchings and other violations of the dignity and worth of black Americans. And it's not just in the past. Modern prisons are often an extension of racial discrimination and violence, an evolution of slavery and Jim Crow for contemporary times. Black people are six times more likely than white people to be locked up for the exact same drug-related crimes, even though drug use is nearly the same among white and black people. They often serve much longer sentences than white convicts for the same crimes as well.
Racism is alive and well in modern America. Religious institutions have too often either been directly involved in racist behavior and policy-making, or at best, have lagged behind the rest of society in working towards racial equality. It baffles me that followers of Jesus (so-called) struggle at all with the sin of racism. How can a life filled with the Holy Spirit be anything but egalitarian and loving to all? If we are to be known by our fruits, it seems there just aren't that many Christians around.
Honestly, nobody should need religious motivation to love his or her human brothers and sisters. That said, intrinsic equality among humans is evident from the very beginning. God made humankind in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). All humans are imago dei. God does not show favoritism (James 2:8-9), and neither should we (if we're truly lovers of God).
If you want to learn more, but do not have the opportunity to take the pilgrimage to the EJI memorial and museum, you can view many great videos here. Below, is one of the videos shown in the museum:
I have always been bothered by churches that display the American flag along the Christian flag. Some churches have gone even further, hosting something called a Freedom Sunday, along with fireworks, patriotic music, and an address by Oliver North. One is forced to ask, "Who is Caesar here?" It doesn't feel right, not because I do not have an affinity for the USA in many respects, but because it really has nothing to do with our Lord and Savior, and his message of love for the world, and because it has absolutely no place in the worship of that Lord. It all boils down to lordship.
This post was spurred by a tweet (see above) I came across today, and the "amen" that unconsciously came from my mouth on reading it. It also reminded me of a quote by Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross." It's a prescient quote, especially since America's more "patriotic" churches are the ones who most align themselves with the political Right.
One of the reasons this is crucial to understand has to do with empire. From the start, language about Jesus (lord, savior, messiah/king, kingdom, et al) signaled a collision of claims. For his followers, Jesus, in contrast to Caesar, is lord and savior (these were terms used of Caesar Augustus). In The Death of the Messiah, Raymond Brown points out, “in first-century Palestine the charge that Jesus was claiming the ‘king of the Jews’ title might well be understood by the Romans as an attempt to re-establish the kingship over Judea and Jerusalem exercised by the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great.” John 11:45-53 seems to imply the fear of imperial powers some Jewish leaders who were allied with the Roman empire had.
Also, and more to the point of the title of this post, patriotism (or allying oneself to national identity) is not congruent with a Spirit-filled life. According to Galatians 5:22-23, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Any identity that supersedes that found in Christ, including patriotism, is opposed to life in Christ.
Of course, it is impossible to locate one central or "most important" verse or passage in the scriptures. Central to whom? Most important for whom? There are, however, a few passages upon which all else seems to depend, not just in the abstract, but in terms of practical theology. John 1:14 is one of these passages, for it is the clearest, most succinct, descriptions of God become flesh, or the Incarnation of the Word (Jesus Christ).
This passage is so central, in fact, that without it (and/or perhaps Colossians 1:15-20), I am not sure I would be drawn to Christianity. It is the Incarnation, the very fact that Jesus Christ became flesh and dwelt among humanity, that makes Christianity unique among world religions, and without which Christianity makes very little sense. John 1:14-18 is so well-known that Christians often read through it without catching its significance, both in terms of personal transformation and as a model of living the Christian life.
First, "the Word became flesh." This indicates something radical about both the Word and flesh (i.e. the material human being). About the Word, it indicates that God, or Spirit, is not in conflict with the material world. Against the Gnostics and much Greek philosophy contemporary to John's time, the passage completely opposes the view that only spirit is good, and that matter is bad - a popular view of the time, and a view which continues among too many Christians today. The body is good. Food is good. Pleasure is good. The flesh is good. The Word was not polluted by becoming flesh. By partaking in embodiment, the Word called flesh, "blessed."
Second, the flesh - or embodiment - appears to be that vehicle by which humans can be fully known by the divine, and vice versa. God is Spirit, and only in becoming flesh in Christ Jesus was the divine able to empathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) and fully know His creation as He knows Himself. It is hardly insignificant that Jesus maintains a physical, resurrected body (Philippians 3:20-21). His incarnation was not a 33-year costume he donned just for appearances, but the full revelation of divinity. This is the foundation of orthodox Christian theology.
What does this mean for us? Well, if we claim to be followers of Jesus, and if we maintain that Jesus is the fullest revelation of the divine, it means that stepping into another's reality is the model of perfect Love. The Word (Logos: ultimate reality) entered into our reality in order to know us (and love us) fully and unconditionally. This models, for us, how to know and love others fully and unconditionally. Just as the Word stepped into our reality, we are called to step into the reality of those unlike us. Therein lies the framework for mutual relationality.
Last night, I attended the screening of Emanuel, a documentary about the horrific massacre of nine black parishioners at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina - one of the oldest African American churches in the entire country. I am still processing the film and the events that occurred on that hot night of June 17, 2015.
Members of the church were attending a Bible study on that evening when Dylann Roof, a 21 year-old white supremacist looking to start a race war, walked into the study and was warmly welcomed by the congregants. He sat through the entire Bible study and waited until prayers at the very end to start his slaughter. Eight members of Emanuel died in that room, and another victim died in the hospital later that night.
An eerie security video outside the church shows Dylann calmly walking out the front door after the rampage, getting into his car, and driving off as if nothing had happened. The next day, police in North Carolina arrested Dylann (in a much calmer manner, it must be said, than if he had been a black man who had just murdered nine white people). During his confession, he nonchalantly admitted to the murders as if it was just one more thing on his to-do list for the previous day.
At the bond hearing, within 48 hours after Roof's arrest, many of the family members of the victims offered forgiveness in the midst of their pain. In the documentary, many of those who forgave Dylann so soon after the tragedy mention that something holy and sacred came over them during that hearing, so as to empower the forgiveness they offered.
As a white man, I want to be extremely careful how I react to this and how I write about it. In the documentary, other members of the church tell how they are not able to yet forgive, and may never be able to do so. Others caution that forgiveness should not be used as an end to giving deep consideration to the root causes of Dylann's actions - mainly, the American original sin of slavery and the continuation of its effects among black individuals and communities. Racism is still very much alive in American society. In no way do I want to avoid these issues.
What struck me, though, about those who were able to offer forgiveness is the why. What motivated them to forgive? What story compelled them to offer their forgiveness to someone who was not even repentant of his transgression? What Reality within them urged that grace?
One of the commentators in the documentary made a comment that stuck with me and answers the questions above. He said that Christianity is the only religion in which God himself, in human flesh, is abused and beaten and killed, and in that suffering, says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Everything in me wants to buck against that. Every impulse wants to object. This kind of forgiveness is not only unnatural. It is dangerous. It is masochistic. It is suicidal.
And it's also the central message of the gospel. Turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-40). Forgive endlessly (Matthew 18:22). The forgiveness God offers is connected to the forgiveness we offer (Matthew 6:14-15). There are so many more instructions to forgive in scripture, and the point is that healing and peace come through forgiveness. I don't know what to do with these instructions. I do know they don't mean to stay in abusive or oppressive situations if you have the ability to escape (see the entire book of Philemon). I also know they do not mean God is not focused on justice for the oppressed (Luke 4:18). In some way, this forgiveness seems to be tied to liberation. It seems to be part of the holy equation of freedom and justice. And it certainly is not something any of us can do on our own, because it is not natural.
Those families who had loved ones snatched from them at Emanuel, yet were somehow able to forgive, show me a supernatural charism. They literally embody Christ. This is not at all to judge those who are not yet able to forgive, or who may never be able to. It is only to recognize the work of the Spirit where it blows, and I sit in awe of it.
This past Friday, I had the privilege of visiting a L'Arche home in the Mobile, Alabama area. This home is one of five homes at Mobile L'Arche, each one a home for people with mild to severe mental and physical disabilities. At the home I visited, there live five people with severe mental and physical disabilities and four team members (assistants).
One thing that immediately struck me is the different sense of time that exists in L'Arche homes. The pace of time follows the needs and relationships among those living there. It may take a hour to give a bath to one of the home core members. It may take an hour and a half for one of the core members to eat dinner. Time serves the person, not the person time. This is very different than the way the world sees time.
For Vanier, and the communities he envisioned, God takes all the time in the world for those whom the world has no time. There is no rush to God's time. It is not only patient, but revels in each relational moment. It is not a commodity to be spent. Vanier wrote, “The friend of time doesn’t spend all day saying: ‘I haven’t got time.’ He doesn’t fight with time. He accepts it and cherishes it.”
As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, God "takes time for the trivial." In the kingdom of God, there are no lives more or less deserving of attention and time. There is no hectic frenzy in God's time. There is no anxiety about "getting things done." There is simple, loving, eternal presence. Seeing time in this way leads to a sense of belonging and the formation of community.
I think this is one of the points of Jesus' instruction: do not worry about tomorrow, what you will eat or drink, or with what you will be clothed. Focus on the moment.
“The longer we journey on the road to inner healing and wholeness, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. The sense is not just one of belonging to others and to a community. It is a sense of belonging to the universe, to the earth, to the air, to the water, to everything that lives, to all humanity.”