Hearing and Keeping God’s Word

Needle Point As for me and my house we will serve the lord and systematically dismantle capitalism, racism and the cis-heteropatriachy

Image via http://bottleofink.tumblr.com/post/114149250902/as-for-me-and-my-house-we-will-serve-the-lord-and

by Herb Montgomery

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

Companion Texts:

Not in Matthew

Gospel of Thomas 79.1-2: “A woman in the crowd said to him: ‘Hail to the womb that carried you and to the breasts that fed you.’ He said to her: ‘Hail to those who have heard the word of the Father and have truly kept it.’”

This is our first eSight post US election 2016. We at Renewed Heart Ministries would like to express and reaffirm our commitment. Our already challenging work toward a safer, just, compassionate world for everyone has now become exponentially more difficult. To our friends who are women, people of color, Muslim, non-native born, LGBTQ, and Native peoples, already marginalized, disenfranchised or on the underside of the status quo, I personally can only imagine what you must be feeling over this past week. It is small comfort, I know, but you are not alone.

We at Renewed Heart Ministries will continue to roll up our sleeves.

We are not going anywhere.

We will still stand alongside you.

Our hand is on the plow.

We are going back to work, realizing that our work just got harder.

We choose solidarity, realizing we have a lot to learn from you.

We choose resistance.

We choose survival.

We choose liberation.

We choose restoration.

We choose transformation.

We realize that changing our world is hard work.  And we are embracing the task alongside you.

With that in view, and in this spirit, let’s dive in to this week’s saying.

Thomas’ Version

First this week I want to draw attention to the fact that although this saying only appears in the later gospel of Luke and not the earlier gospel of Matthew, it does appear in the platonic gospel of Thomas. One possible theory is that Luke, Matthew, and Thomas all had access to the Jewish source of Jesus sayings that scholars call Q, and Luke and Thomas chose to include this saying but Matthew simply did not. If this is true, then even with the saying’s absence from Matthew, it is highly likely that we can attribute it the historical, Jewish Jesus.

A deeply Jewish way of looking at humanity that many scholars believe can be traced back to Hillel is that every human being is a bearer of the image of God. Rabbis saw showing disrespect to any human being who had been created in God’s image as a denial of God and tantamount to atheism. Murder was also sacrilege—whoever shed human blood was regarded as if he or she had diminished the divine image. These teachers taught that God had created only one human at the beginning of time to teach us that “destroying only one human life was equivalent to annihilating the entire world and to save a life redeemed the whole of humanity. Humiliating anybody—even a non-Jew—defaced God’s image, and malicious gossip denied the existence of God. Religion is inseparable from the practice of habitual respect to all other human beings. You can not worship God unless you practiced the Golden Rule and honored your fellow humans, whoever they were.” (Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Kindle Locations 7507-7540)

This background is the foundation I’d like to build on as we consider this week’s saying. It is the truth that the closest I will ever come to God in this life is you, whomever you are. Whether male, female, gender nonconforming, trans, white, person of color, gay, straight, or bisexual, you are my fellow image of God bearer, and in you I behold the varied and diverse image of God.

I believe the gospel of Thomas falls short of this foundation. Thomas’ version of the saying is slightly different from the version in Luke and includes a gender bias: Thomas contrasts honor and rebuke for a human mother with reverence for a divine ”father.” The divine holds the superior place in this hierarchy, and the imbalance matches Thomas’ other sexist sayings including this one at the end of Thomas’ gospel:

“Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: “Look, I will draw her in so as to make her male, so that she too may become a living male spirit, similar to you. But I say to you: ‘Every woman who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas 114)

Luke’s Version

Luke’s version does not contrast genders or rank the human and the divine. Luke contrasts unilateral hero worship with the value of a community that practices Jesus’ teachings. Let’s unpack this.

The audience’s words, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” emphasize how wonderful Jesus is and why he and the mother who gave him birth should be praised. Jesus counters this emphasis with a blessing on the community of “those” who together are “hearing” and “obey” his life teachings, teachings he defines as the “word of God.”

The phrase here for “word of God” is often abused by large sectors of Western evangelical Christianity today. In Western evangelical Christianity, the phrase “the word of God” is shorthand for “the Bible,” which must be read literally and assumed inerrant. But our saying this week uses the word logos. Logos is the word that means wisdom to Hellenistic Jewish, Greek, and Gnostic listeners. The later gospel of John also associated this word with the sophia of Proverbs (cf. John 1:1-3 and Proverbs 8:22-30). This is this wisdom and word that Jesus claims to be teaching.

Also, this saying uses the designation “those,” “those who hear and obey.” Remember, Jesus teachings make very little sense when removed from a context of community. For him to have said instead “the one who hears and obeys” would have contradicted the very wisdom he promoted and wanted his followers to obey. Jesus’ wisdom, his solutions to our world’s challenges, and his call to survival, resistance, liberation, restoration, and transformation came through the creation of community. It came through his followers’ embrace of humanity’s natural, mutual dependence.

Community is what gives us the resources to follow Jesus’ teachings. You can’t follow him without community. Community, and how to function as a community, is what Jesus is actually teaching, whether it be through resource-sharing, mutual aid, or wealth redistribution, it’s all done within community. This is why it is “those who hear and obey” and not “the one who hears and obeys.”

Valuing and seeking to create community, and depending on that community to ensure our survival in the future is very different than worshipping an isolated hero for his past acts. Christianity has largely practiced the latter while having to learn from outside sources how to do the former. But, as Alice Walker states, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting on.” This belief is what Jesus is seeking to awaken in his listeners, not as individuals, but as a collective.

Rita Nakashima Brock, in Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, critiques Christianity’s transformation of Jesus into an isolated hero.

“The relationship of liberator to oppressed is unilateral. Hence the liberator must speak for victims. The brokenhearted do not speak to the strong [in] a unilateral, heroic model . . . I believe the above [unilateral hero] views of Christ tend to rely on unilateral views of power and too limited [an] understanding of the power of community. They present a heroic Jesus who alone is able to achieve an empowering self-consciousness through a solitary, private relationship with God/dess. If Jesus is reported to have been capable of profound love and concern for others, he was first loved and respected by the concrete persons of his life. If he was liberated, he was involved in a community of mutual liberation… the Gospel narratives give us glimpses of the mutuality of Jesus’ relationships… Jesus’ vision of basileia [kingdom] grew to include the disposed, women and non-Jewish . . . ‘the marginal,” because of his encounter and interaction with the real presence of such people. They co-create liberation and healing from brokenheartedness.” (p. 65-67)

In Luke’s saying this week, Jesus refocuses his followers on the intrinsic value of the things he taught and the importance of actually putting those teachings into practice. We can’t say too much about this.

My Experience

If watching my friends’ Facebook posts this election season has taught me anything about the Christian circles that I have traveled in over the last two decades, it is that the first ten years of my ministry did not make a significant, concrete difference in the lives of those with power and resources in our societies. The gospel I preached and taught helped those in positions of power who benefited from how resources are structured to sleep better at night. Because of what I taught them, they went to bed each night assured of post mortem bliss and feeling blessed that a God up there in the sky somewhere loved them unconditionally and did not condemn them. 

With teachings like these, why are white, privileged Christians so guilt-stricken? Why are we so fascinated with defining the gospel and salvation as guilt and relief of condemnation rather than as subjugated people’s liberation from oppression, injustices, and violence (See Luke 4:18-19). Why do we escape to hopes of heaven and retreat into private, isolated personal relationships with Jesus? Why are we not more engaged working alongside the oppressed demographic that Jesus worked alongside, and restore others’ humanity as well as our own?

I have been watching friends who have believed and supported the gospel I once subscribed to. And yet my friends are still entrenched in supporting racism, sexism, and classism. The gospel I previously taught did not change or even addressed that bias. These same gospel-believing Christian friends have been the first over the last two years to try to censure and correct my protests of injustice. They have repeatedly justified violence and oppression, or even their underlying beliefs. And all the while they’ve accused me of going off the rails.

I’ve come to a conclusion this week. If the gospel I teach does not challenge racism, sexism, and classism, if it doesn’t inspire tangible, concrete ways to help make the world a safer, just, more compassionate place for those on the undersides of our society, if that gospel allows people to remain bigoted and does not challenge bigotry at its core, that gospel is an unhealthy tree! My Jesus said, we can know a tree by its fruit. And the fruit of such a gospel would not be for the “healing of the nations,” but for the destruction of the human species and possibly the entire planet.

Peter Gomes, in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus reminds us that it is far easier to talk about Jesus than the things Jesus talked about. Why? Because what Jesus talked about has the potential to change our world.

But if your world is already pretty good, then changing it is not perceived as gospel (good news) but as a threat. In this week’s saying, we are called not to merely praise Jesus, but to practice values centered in the experiences of those surviving, working for liberation informed by the teachings of Jesus, and endeavoring to put those teachings into practice.

We will not always get it right. We will fail at times and there will be times where we succeed. But we can choose a path of preferring to apply teachings that point to establishing justice and recovering our humanity. Those are teachings that would have real effects in our world.

In a tradition that offers religion to help us learn the differences between right and wrong, this week’s saying invites us to practice greater compassion as we learn together what trends toward life and promotes equitable thriving for all.

I’m not going back to what I used to teach. I want to practice compassion, and hero worship is not enough. So this week, I deeply resonate with the words we are contemplating:

“As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27-28; see Q 11:27-28)

HeartGroup Application

1. As a group this week I want you to describe three differences between worshiping Jesus as an isolated hero and being part of a community that experiments with implementing the values he and his followers taught. What does each approach imply for those on the underside and margins of our society?

2. List a few ways that you as a group can move toward being a practitioner of the ethics he taught, as contrasted with being a worshiper of Jesus that largely disregards living out Jesus’ ethical teachings.

3. Pick one of those ways and put it into practice.

Delores S. Williams in her volume Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God- Talk writes:

It seems more intelligent and more scriptural to understand that redemption had to do with God, through Jesus, giving humankind new vision to see the resources for positive, abundant relational life. Redemption had to do with God, through the ministerial vision, giving humankind the ethical thought and practice upon which to build positive, productive quality of life. Hence, the kingdom of God theme in the ministerial vision of Jesus does not point to death; it is not something one has to die to reach. Rather, the kingdom of God is a metaphor of hope God gives those attempting to right the relations between self and self, between self and others, between self and God as prescribed in the sermon on the mount, in the golden rule and in the commandment to show love above all else.” (pp. 130-131)

And I could not agree more.

Wherever you are today, thank you for taking time to check in this week. My hope is that your heart is renewed and encouraged, not to simply praise Jesus, but to put his teachings into practice.

The Return of the Unclean Spirit 

(And standing in solidarity with the Native nations on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas)

by Herb Montgomery

Photo by Desiree Kane

banner being held stating "we are water"

 

 

 

 

“When the defiling spirit has left the person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, and finds none. Then‚ it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And on arrival it finds it swept and tidied up. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and, moving in, they  settle there. And the last circumstances of that person become worse than the first.” (Q 11:24-26)

Companion Texts

Matthew 12:43-45: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.”

Luke 11:24-26: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

This week’s saying is challenging to say the least, and as modern people with a more naturalistic understanding of how the world works, we could simply write it off as part of an apocalyptic world view that predates the Enlightenment. I agree with Karen Armstrong, who says in her volume The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions that Jesus and the gospel authors were most definitely “men of their time” (p. xxii). But that does not mean that this week’s saying has no relevance to our work of survival, resistance, liberation, restoration and transformation today.

In very general terms, this is a saying that warns about reality after liberation becoming worse, seven times worse, than the state of things before. In Delores S. Williams’ womanist classic, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Williams writes:

“Among the ancient Hebrews, foreign slaves often fared worse than Hebrew and native slaves. ‘In the case of the maid-servant no release was permitted under ordinary circumstances, for it is assumed that the slave-girl is at the same time a concubine, and hence release would be against the best interest both of herself and of the home.’” See “Slave and Slavery” in the Dictionary of the Bible, pp. 864– 66.”

Notice that these customs were among the laws of a people who had been freed from Egyptian bondage. She goes on to contrast the experiences of male and female slaves:

“In the covenant code (Exodus 20:22-23:33) God identifies the rights of the Hebrew male slave. After six years of enslavement, the male slave gets his freedom in the seventh year. God does not object to Hebrew men selling their daughters as slaves. But the daughters shall not be given their freedom (except under special circumstances) as the male slaves are. God says the slave’s wife (if given him by his master) and his children belong to the slave master. Therefore, even if the slave husband is emancipated, the slave wife and her children remain in bondage. The only way the family can stay together is for the father to remain a slave.” (pp. 112-113)

Another contrast is the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish slavery:

“When non-Jewish people (like many African-American women who now claim themselves to be economically enslaved) read the entire Hebrew testament from the point of view of the non-Hebrew slave, there is no clear indication that God is against their perpetual enslavement. Likewise, there is no clear opposition expressed in the Christian testament to the institution of slavery.” (pp. 113-114)

Nevertheless, we gain a lot from embracing James H. Cone’s theological hermeneutic of liberation, which he grounded in the ancient liberation stories of Israel and Egypt:

“Yahweh is known and worshiped as the One who brought Israel out of Egypt, and who raised Jesus from the dead. God is the political God, the Protector of the poor and the Establisher of the right for those who are oppressed.” (Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 57)

Cone also stated that “any analysis of the gospel which did not begin and end with God’s liberation of the oppressed was ipso facto unchristian.” (ibid, preface to 1975 edition)

Yet we cannot ignore that in the sacred story, the freshly liberated Israelite peoples went on to decimate the indigenous peoples of Canaan.

RHM’s 2016 Annual Reading Course Book for September was Philip Jenkins’ Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses. In this book, Jenkins reminds us of the years when White, European Christians used the stories of Canaanite conquest to justify decimating the Native American people. These Christians called the Indigenous peoples “modern Canaanites” to legitimize genocide of their peoples and claim their land as White Christian America’s manifest destiny.

This history has influenced how some Indigenous theologians read Exodus: in the preface to God of the Oppressed, Cone acknowledges how Native American theologian Robert Warrior reads “the Exodus and Conquest narratives ‘with Canaanite eyes.’ The Exodus is not a paradigmatic event of liberation for indigenous peoples but rather an event of colonization.”

This week’s saying reminds us that we must necessarily guard against exchanging the dehumanization of being oppressed with the dehumanization of becoming the oppressor. These are different experiences, yet both are fundamentally dehumanizing.

In the words of Paulo Freire:

“In order for this struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition, p. 44)

Although what we find in the Jewish scriptures is a collection of stories from a people who had embraced a liberation narrative as their national identity, the Hebrew Bible was still “written from the perspective of the dominant class in Israel” (James H. Cone; God of the Oppressed).

What Does This Mean?

Our saying this week is really about restoring our humanity. In 1st Century language, it describes a person who has been liberated from something dehumanizing yet is later dehumanized by something “worse than the first.”

In similar ways, Western Christianity can trace its roots to the liberation narrative of a 1st Century Jewish, self-educated Rabbi from among the lowest class (see Luke 4.18-19). Yet we must acknowledge the unpleasant truth that Western, White European and American Christians have also been among the most violent people in this planet’s history.

The first generation of Jewish Jesus followers was almost entirely proletarian and believed that militaristic violence was an illegitimate way to reshape the world. They believed that the battles to be fought were in the realm of winning hearts and minds to practices such as mutual aid, resource-sharing, and wealth redistribution.

Western Christianity grew out of these beginnings and become wholly unrecognizable to its origins. Though we grew out of a liberation movement of the oppressed, we became violent oppressors of others during the crusades, Inquisition, the Christian annihilation of indigenous peoples, the Holocaust on European and Middle Eastern soils, and Christian enslavement of African people on American soil.

Our theologians, preachers, and ethicists are simply not in a position to tell people whose experience of life has not been like ours, people who have been the repeated recipients of our violence, what they must do to be like Jesus. Instead, I must be willing to listen to and not stand in judgment towards those presently oppressed in our society. I must learn what it means for me to work alongside others as we work together, each of us, for the recovering of our own humanity.

In the areas of my life where I belongs to sectors of our society that are privileged by the status quo, I must embrace the reality that to be complicit in the oppression of others is to cooperate in crushing my own humanity in order to participate in the dehumanizing of others. When I say that black lives matter, that LGBTQ lives matter, that women’s lives matter, that Native American lives matter, it is not for those lives alone that I say those words. It is also for the regaining of my own humanity.

Either we are all free, or nobody is. When subjugated lives are restored, everyone’s humanity is too.

After he listened to critiques and feedback from “feminist, gay, womanist, Native American, and South African black theologians,” James Cone concluded:

“Human beings are made for each other and no people can realize their full humanity except as they participate in its realization for others.” (God of the Oppressed)

Solidarity with the oppressed is not solely for the oppressed, as if we could be someone else’s savior. We are all in this together, and we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Together we are working to restore and recover our humanities, your humanity, and my humanity. Together, we resist oppression for the survival of our humanities, and hope in liberation despite socio-economic, political, and even religious currents that continually threaten our becoming human once again.

We have the power to think and to do. We have the power to make better choices. This world can be different, if we choose for it to be. In this light, maybe this old saying still does have something to say to each of us:

“When the dehumanizing spirit has left the person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, and finds none. Then‚ it says, I will return to my house from which I came. And on arrival it finds it swept and tidied up. Then it goes and brings with it seven other dehumanizing spirits more dehumanizing than itself, and, moving in, they colonize there. And the last circumstances of that person become worse than the first.” (Q 11:24-26, Personal Paraphrase)

HeartGroup Application

This week I’m asking you, as a follower of RHM, to join me in standing in solidarity with the Native nations on Standing Rock Indian Reservation in the Dakotas. One of our partners here at Renewed Heart Ministries, Dr. Keisha McKenzie, recently wrote about the Indigenous Earth Network’s latest update from Standing Rock. Keisha encouraged us all take action and help support the resistance efforts there.

Please take a moment to read her update here:

https://mackenzian.com/blog/2016/10/29/update-nodapl/.

Also circulating around Twitter this past week was the meme How To Take Action With #StandingRock for those desiring to help but unable to be there physically.

How to take action with #standingrock

This week, discuss with your HeartGroup what you could do. Anything helps. If you need to get informed first, take the time to do so, then take action.

This is love in action. Till the only world that remains is a world where only love reigns.

Thank you for taking the time to join us this week.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.