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.
We’re conditioned, socialized to the see the world through lenses that magnify everything. Ministers often keep score the way everyone else does.
What we rarely stop to ask ourselves is whether, in all our scorekeeping and advanced measure-taking, we’re keeping score of the right things, measuring the stuff that really matters.
Eternity can, of course, mean in the great forever in the future—some endless span of time. But eternity doesn’t just have to be about the length of time; it can signify the depth of time, which is to say the quality of time. In that sense, then, food that endures for eternal life can be about food that deepens the quality of time right here and now by having enough, so that people no longer need to follow a potential messiah around the wilderness in constant search for a little relief from the hunger that besets them—so that eternity can begin to break into the world right now.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t talk about bread that lasts forever; he offers bread that endures for eternal life.
By Derek Penwell
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).
We all take things for granted. Navigating our world day-to-day requires a certain amount of taken-for-grantedness. I take for granted that when I give the cashier a little blue piece of plastic that I’ll be able to take my lima beans and Wonderbread and walk out of the Kroger unmolested.
I take for granted that when I go to Pizza Hut they’re not leavening the dough with Drano.
I take for granted that when this rally is over, I’ll get in my car to go home, and everyone else on the road will know to drive on the righthand side of the road.
Indeed, I take for granted that after this is over, I’ll have a home to go home to.
Most of us take for granted that home is a fixed place that’ll be there whenever we need it.
But not everybody in the world has a place they can call home. Because, I suspect, we all realize that home is more than an address with a few shrubs, a mailbox, and a toxic waste dump for your neighbor’s 200 lb. Mastiff.
There are some people who feel like the place they were born and learned to call home is no longer safe enough to be anything like a home. And so they pack up their children and they come here in the hopes of finding a new home and new neighbors—and if not a home then at least a place that will protect their children from the violence and death they’ve grown to expect in the places they come from.
What happens now with the “zero tolerance” policy is that families in search of a home are torn apart. This administration has decided that children are an acceptable price to pay to keep people of color from “invading” our country.
This administration has made the strategic calculation that it’s altogether acceptable to say to the parents of these children, as well as to intransigent bleeding heart liberals and progressives: “That’s a nice baby you’ve got there. It’d be a shame for something to happen to her.”
In just 6 weeks, thousands of children have been ripped from their parents’ arms. Doctors tell us this kind of trauma causes lifelong mental, emotional, and physical harm. And there’s still no plan to reunite these families, to restore to terrified parents and children the possibility of ever again finding a home together. The closest thing the folks in charge have got is locking up families in the same facility.
But that’s not putting families back together; it’s just crushing them in a new, more deniably evil way.
You see, home is where people welcome you . . . often when you’ve got no place else to go. In the world of the Bible not to have a home was to be vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Those who were most vulnerable because they often had no home were widows, orphans, and strangers.
In fact, more than any other commandment in the Hebrew Scriptures, the exhortation to care for widows, orphans, and strangers is more prominent than any other commandment . . . over three dozen times it’s in there. You can find it in the Law, in the Psalms, and in the Prophets.
God holds a special place in God’s heart for those who can’t find welcome in this world, a home for those whose homes can no longer welcome them. A place to belong, a place where hospitality is extended.
As a person of faith, I have a vested interest in the issue of hospitality, of extending the hand of welcome.
In our culture, we tend to believe that hospitality has to do with things like potato salad and chicken casserole. But when people of faith talk about about hospitality, we’ve got our sights set on bigger things. Because cultivating hospitality is about having a disposition, an attitude of openness, which asks first about how to serve and embrace others—regardless of what the folks in charge think about it.
And if I’m being honest, I’m baffled by white evangelicals who think this president is a champion for Christian values. He hasn’t done anything that if the Jesus they claim to follow showed up on the scene would cause him to say, “Yeah, nice job! That’s totally what I had in mind.”
People of faith have got to do better—Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians. All of us, people of faith and people of no particular faith . . . we bear responsibility for the treatment of widows, orphans, and strangers. And we can’t sit idly by while innocent people, people just searching for a home under the banner of our protection are thrown in cages.
We’ve got to join our voices together to tell the government “No! You’re not going to continue to commit atrocities against people of color in our name—just to score political points with racists and white nationalists! We will not allow it!”
Because don’t kid yourself, you start welcoming the stranger to make a home among us, speaking up on behalf of the undocumented and those fleeing violence, you start advocating for sanctuary for those oppressed by the government . . . you’re going to make the big shots in Frankfort and Washington nervous.
But maybe what we need most right now is some nervous politicians, politicians scared of our outrage, afraid of what we’re capable of doing in the name of justice and love.
When we talk about welcome, about hospitality, we’re not concerned with drawing boundary lines to indicate just who deserves it; we’re interested in blowing open the doors and welcoming everybody in. To the people usually on the outside of polite society with their noses pressed up against the glass wishing someone would welcome them—we say, "Let 'em all in. Don't cross-reference the guest list; don't check I.D.s at the door, don't ask for the password and the secret handshake, don’t make sure they’re the right color. Look them in the eyes, embrace them, and say, ‘Welcome home.’”
Because the real question to those of us who care about our neighbors is:
Are we willing to love the wrong people hard enough to make the folks in charge nervous?