The question for those of us committed to following in the steps of the magi, and ultimately in the steps of Jesus is: When we spot the old world trying to stamp out the new, the powerful trying to subdue the powerless, will we take the easy way and acquiesce to the whims of a tyrant, or will we resist?
Bethlehem—and the gospel toward which it points—is the focal point of the politics of empire. Don't kid yourself.
We were important enough to God that God had it figured out from the beginning how to bring us home. We, therefore, if we are to be like God, must devote ourselves to the prospect of making a home for one another—both the kind we live in, as well as the kind that lives in us.
The question posed by Advent is: How do we who live at the front of the line make Mary's song our song?
Ironic that we, whom most of the rest of the world envies, might have to sit at the feet of Mary and Elizabeth to learn how to sing the song God gave all of us to sing about the reign of the coming messiah, a song for the humiliated and disposable people sung in anticipation of Emmanuel—God with us.
Following Jesus isn’t about securing our own piece of the heavenly pie, it’s about living with and loving those about whom John the Baptist speaks, and those whom Jesus loved.
Living under the reign of God isn’t about escaping this world; it’s about offering God’s welcome to those whom the world has marginalized and forgotten. It’s about God pitching a tent in the muck and the mire of our sometimes godforsaken lives and living with us in the midst of the madness and horror.
Luke’s quoting of Isaiah isn’t meant to help us visualize a flatter, smoother world, or to help us to feel better about the hilly, bumpy world we live in. In this context John the Baptist’s call to repentance isn’t about trying to be more sincere about our remorse. It’s about shaking up the world as it’s currently situated, so that something new can be born.
In Luke’s hands these words are about tearing things up, about unsettling the way things are currently arranged. But this time around, what’s going to be disrupted, what’s going to be toppled aren’t hills and valleys in the wilderness that stand between Israel and home, but the powers and principalities that stand between God’s people and the future God has planned—between the way things are and the reign of God, the way things ought to be.
Apocalyptic is always a difficult word for those used to a world that serves them. People at the top of the food chain, people satisfied just fine with the way things are, don’t want to hear that things are about to be shaken up.
But there are other people for whom such news is a long awaited word of redemption, a bit of hope in a dark place. Those on the bottom, the small and the forgotten, those who have little to gain from the preservation of the present arrangements, get all kinds of hopeful upon hearing Jesus talk about a new world designed with them first in mind.
Not only does God not respond to us with violence—God, in Jesus, has a front row seat to the very systems of domination that deal in the kind of death Jesus suffers—the kinds of death people continue to suffer at the hands of the wealthy and the powerful—the very people Jesus announces from the beginning that his new reign will lift up: the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed.
It’s hard to imagine Luke getting any further away from our established understandings of what constitutes a viable kingdom in our world. After all, crosses don’t make good political mascots."
Editors note: Please forgive a few techincal difficulties.
"Look at popular Christianity and you’ll find that what many people want out of faith is not a way to relinquish control. Many Christians don’t live as though they believe God is in charge even when they don’t understand how it’s all going to work out. Instead, people often look to faith for a way to order their existences…a way that will inoculate them against pain.
"But we trivialize the gospel when we convince ourselves that it’s possible to be a disciple of Jesus without it ever costing us anything."
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We need to advocate for a just economic system that looks out for the needs of those on the margins, that refuses to devour widows houses—that refuses to make the poor feel like they’re not full participants until they cough up their last five bucks until payday.
But in the meantime, we need to work like crazy to be a church worthy of the kind of financial sacrifices people make.
And the fact that Jesus links love for neighbor and love for God together suggests that the way we love God is through our love for our neighbors. Jesus doesn’t offer up some vague notion of love that centers first on our ability to muster up the correct emotional responses.
In fact, if we’re ever going to feel love, then, in all likelihood, we’re going to have to act lovingly first.
The secret of love that our culture seems not to know is that the feelings of love generally follow loving action; they don’t necessarily precede them. It is easier, as the saying goes, to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.
By Derek Penwell
“When you have more than you need, build a longer table not a higher fence.” ~Author Unknown
You’ve probably seen the meme on social media. The sentiment about preferring longer tables to higher fences serves as a reminder that we have a choice in how we respond to those people of a different tribe from our own. Such a reminder about hospitality is especially important as we face an uncertain future, where the prospect of division seems inevitable. As a pastor, and even though I know the often bloody history of faith, I hope that the diversity of our religious traditions will offer strength, rather than adding to the estrangement.
Welcoming the stranger as an honored guest sits at the heart of the world’s oldest religious traditions. Such hospitality expresses the best part of our human nature as people of faith, allowing us to identify and cherish that which is most profoundly sacred in each other. And there is perhaps no greater symbol of our dedication to hospitality than the table, which occupies a central place among the various faith traditions.
The symbol of the table speaks of friendship and community, a commitment to finding space for everyone. But the table is also a recognition of the fact that not only should all people be welcome, but that our lives and our community can never be entirely whole while those who are most vulnerable are excluded. Because the table is not only a place where we share what we have with others, but a place where others may bring the gifts of their lives to share with us. In that sense, then, all our lives are enriched when the fences that keep people out are knocked down and the table is made long enough to include everyone.
At our best, people of faith consider ourselves to be people of the long table, a people motivated to extend welcome and protection to the stranger, the immigrant, and the refugee; to pursue friendship with the vulnerable and the imperiled; and to open ourselves up to be blessed by the presence of those who are too often easily forgotten, or worse, intentionally excluded.
The assumption of the inherent value of the lives of others should cause people of faith to grieve when those who are different from us are treated as worthless. But not only do we have a responsibility to welcome the stranger, we also have an opportunity to receive a blessing—the dawning realization that the common table around which we sit makes all of our lives better the longer it is.
I love the idea that the Jesus I’ve spent my life learning how to follow is big enough to allow himself to be stretched by a Gentile woman with a sick kid—about the very last person in the whole world Jesus ought to be taking religious instruction from.
I love the idea that Jesus is big enough to listen for the voice of God in even the most unlikely places—not in the institutions busy authorizing and credentialing everything, making sure that it meets all the government standards for cage free, free range faith.
But here’s what I want to propose: I think this Syrophoenician woman challenges us to encounter newness and change not as a threat, but as God trying to break in among us and stretch our understanding of how big this welcome is we’re supposed to be giving, how expansive is the vision of just who God wants to offer hospitality to."
Popular Christianity promises a Jesus who wants to be your pal, a Jesus who doesn’t want you to be inconvenienced, a Jesus whose real concern is that all your biases are continually reconfirmed for you. A Jesus who knows what true glory looks like. And, let me tell you, that would be a whole lot easier on me.
But unfortunately, I’m not good enough at this to give you that Jesus. Instead, I’m so incompetent at my job that all I can manage to figure out how to give you is a Jesus who seeks out the small, the irrelevant, and the marginal. I’m only skilled enough to show up on Sunday mornings with a Jesus who thinks glory looks like losing, sacrificing, and dying on behalf of those everybody else walked away from a long time ago. I hope once again that you’ll forgive me my vocational inadequacies.
Dinner and beer with Jesus tonight at North End Cafe on Bardstown Road at 6:30!
Let me put it this way, in the reign of God not only do I want everyone included, I want it so badly that I don’t want anything to stand in the way. I don’t want your need to have final approval on God’s guest list to be an obstacle to them knowing they’re welcome to the party.
Moreover, I don’t want your zeal to scare off the people who’ve spent so much time convinced that they’re not welcome at any party—let alone one thrown by God. And, just so you know, your judgmentalism isn’t helping. It’s scaring off the people I’m most interested to see have a seat at the head table.
What if the cross, as fearsome and terrifying as it is,is the place where we meet Jesus?
What if the cross allows us to consider that cross-carrying is not an individual, but a team sport? Even Jesus needed help lugging that lumber up the road. Not only do we find Jesus struggling under the load, but we find one another there too.
Moreover, being near Jesus puts us near the poor, the disenfranchised, the powerless. That’s good news. Because since we’ve embraced the cross, we’ve already embraced powerlessness, not as a strategy for effective living but as a way of life that seeks above all else to follow Jesus wherever he goes.
Abiding, which on the surface feels so passive, is just the opposite. If we abide in Jesus, if we live out the vision of the world he sees, we can’t help but take on the work of dismantling the systems that result in the shedding of the lifeblood of the poor and the outcry of the oppressed. We have no choice but to stand against the powers that foreclose on the futures of the defenseless, in the service of adding to the stockpiles of their own avarice.
Abiding, at least as Jesus imagines it, is the greatest act of communal resistance there is.
When Paul says that our struggle isn’t against enemies of flesh and blood, but agains the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places—he’s not talking about some other worldly weirdness. The cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places aren’t some kind of super demon army, some version of Indiana Jones and the Flaming Arrows of the Evil one.
And he’s not talking about our personal demons for which we need a mystical Batmobile and sanctified kevlar. He"s talking about the powers and principalities that institutionalize injustice and subjugation right here, right now.
The kind of powers and principalities that let LGBTQ people die alone with no one to speak their name, the kind of spiritual forces of evil that have systematically terrorized African Americans for four hundred years, the cosmic powers of this present darkness that lock immigrant children not in spiritual prisons tended by celestial guards, but in actual cages tended by agents of Caesar.