Those Things Which Are Eternal


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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


hands held in community

Herb Montgomery | July 30, 2021


“The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right. In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

‘Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus said to them, Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Sir,” they said, always give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:24-35)

I grew up understanding this passage as encouraging focus on getting to heaven in the afterlife, and not focusing on earthly realities that impact our lives in the here and now. An earthward focus was considered a waste of time, “arranging deck-chairs on the Titanic.” This school of interpretive thought has born deeply destructive fruit and has always been coopted by oppressive powers to create a kind of Christianity that leaves the oppressive systems of the powerful untouched by Christian followers. This kind of Christianity led those such as Karl Marx to label religion an opiate of the masses.

I want to offer an alternative interpretation of Jesus’s words in John. Jesus said to those wanting to use him to gain political power, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.” (See last week’s eSight.)

Most Biblical Greek scholars recognize that the word translated “eternal”, aionios, described a future time when God would establish justice on Earth. That vision contrasted this present age of violence, injustice, and oppression with a future age of justice, restoration, and peace. The eternal age contrasted with a present temporary age. The focus of anioios was primarily about the quality of the age to come and only secondarily about the age’s duration. In the eternal age or the eternal life, injustice, oppression and violence would be put right.

In this context, an alternative, life-giving interpretation of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel is a call to focus on the long game of establishing justice in the earth over the temporary gains of power, privilege or property.

Let me offer some examples.

Those in control of and benefiting from the US fossil fuel industries have a decision to make: continue making enormous profits today and make our planet uninhabitable through the climate change that results from burning industry products, or abandon those profits (“food that spoils”) to ensure our planet remains a safe, habitable home for everyone (“food that endures to eternal life”).

A friend connected to various Evangelical and fundamentalist ministries shares another example. My friend has witnessed those who have successful ministries pressured to embrace or align with the current surge in Christian nationalism and that movement’s politics. If they do, they’re choosing to support or at least go along with things they never would have imagined themselves supporting just to keep money flowing into their ministries. Their choice is between standing against what they see happening, trying to rightly inform their supporters, losing financial support, and downsizing their “successful” ministries, and staying silent, going along with troubling things, and trying to maintain supporters who understand what they are doing and supporters who are sincere but misled or misinformed. This is a textbook example of working for “food that spoils” rather than “food that endures to eternal life.”

US politicians now have a very similar choice: go along with Trumpism, anti-vaccination, and/or other troubling party platforms to get re-elected next year (working for “food that spoils”) or stand against what they feel is harmful and face political ruin over the right thing to do long-term (working for “food that endures to eternal life”).

This is another variant of the choice laid before Luke’s gospel’s audience:

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (Luke 9:25)

I know something of having to make this kind of choice.

When I had these decisions to make, I was naïve and did not fully understand what doing the right thing would cost. My line in the sand was for Renewed Heart Ministries to choose between inclusion and affirmation of LGBTQ folk and exclusion. My choice to embrace affirming Christian theology has cost this ministry everything to this day, and my journey has included consequences that have not always been easy to bear. I don’t regret my decision. I also want to be honest that the decision almost tanked Renewed Heart Ministries. One year we were one of the most successful ministries of our denomination, and the next we were on the brink of having to close—and more than eight years later, we’re still coming back from that.

For me, not “working for food that spoils” meant refusing to stay silent (and conventionally employable) when I saw my LGBTQ friends being harmed by our denomination. Working for food that endures to eternal life meant doing the right thing, the just thing, the compassionate thing, the nonviolent thing, even if that meant I had to give up some things on that journey.

And what has been the result? Today I belong to a community that’s very different than the one I used to belong to. Some folks from the old days have kept on journeying with me. Some have yet to make that journey, and still others never will; I’ve had to accept that.

But my community today includes people who feel as passionate as I do about justice and making our present world a better and safer place for those marginalized in the present system. Have we seen sacrifices? Absolutely. But have we seen gains as well? Yes! Our ministry is still recovering materially, but those I have met and am in relationship with today I might never have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing if I had not chosen this path. They make it worth it for me. If there is an age to come, as Jesus taught, what we will be able to take with us is not our money, political power, or our property, but rather the relationships we’ve made here, in our present age, with the people we hold most dear. Working with them is working for food that endures to eternal life for me.

What does that mean for you?

What decisions have you made in your own journey?

What have they cost you?

What have you gained instead as a result of making those difficult choices?

And, for all of us, what decisions still lie ahead?

Whatever they are, I have confidence today that the food that endures is the better choice. It may not always be the easiest choice, but it is ultimately the better choice, and together, in community, we can face the fallout of our better choices, come what may.

As Jesus said, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does eternal versus temporary mean to you? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Enough for Everyone

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Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


steeple

Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021


This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth. But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, It would take more than half a years wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peters brother, spoke up, Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. But he said to them, It is I; dont be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. (John 6:1-20)

Among the canonical gospels, there are six versions of this story. Five are in the synoptics, originating in Mark’s version (Mark 6, Mark 8, Matthew 14, Matthew 15, and Luke 9). The sixth version is found here in John.

Most Jesus scholars see evidence that Matthew’s and Luke’s versions were copied from Mark’s telling of this story. John’s version is quite different than Mark’s, leading some scholars to believe that both versions may have had a common ancestor, a version that existed in the early oral tradition. We still don’t know today for sure, but it is clear that each version of the Jesus story contains the story of Jesus’ community sharing resources.

This is telling. Very few things Christians have deemed greatly important appear in all four gospels. Even the virgin birth only shows up in one gospel, and is implied in both Matthew and Luke. Mark and John, on the other hand, thought Jesus followers did not even need to know about the virgin birth.

But the gospels give us six versions of this story of resource-sharing so that there was enough for everyone, even with left overs. That speaks to me of how central resource-sharing was to the early Jesus movement.

Rooted in the economics of the Hebrew manna story, where those who gathered much shared with those who didn’t have as much (see Exodus 16), the ethic of resource-sharing was recorded as the first act Jesus followers took after Pentecost.

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41-47, emphasis added.)

We read of this ethic a second time in the book of Acts in chapter 4:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And Gods grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostlesfeet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4.32-35, emphasis added.)

This social consciousness appears to be part of the fabric of what it meant to follow Jesus early on.

We find a different spin on this story in the gospel of John.

John takes this story with its emphasis on a young person who chose to share what he had and whose resources Jesus blessed to become enough for everyone in the community, and then transforms it into a story of Jesus doing miracle work. Rather than the story staying a story about people sharing what they have with one another, the author of John evolves it into a story about the supernatural power of Jesus.

Consider this phrase in John’s version of the story:

“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”

John’s version becomes a prophetic warning against what we, looking back after the fact, see has become of the Jesus community and the imperial powers of the state that has sought to co-opt the Christian religion in repeated generations and repeated expressions. I think of how Christianity has been used by the Christian Right here in the U.S. to gain power to push racist, classist, sexist, and cis-heterosexist political policies in our era. I’m disgusted each time I think of how flags were carried by White Christians alongside their Trump flags as they violently stormed the U.S. capitol building on January 6, all because of a lie that somehow an election process that also installed Republicans in various elected positions on the same ballots was mysteriously “stollen.” As Miguel A. De La Torre wrote in his recent book Decolonizing Christianity, “We focus on the Trump presidency because probably no other president has wrapped himself so fervently in both the flag and the cross, merging the two with himself and the Republican Party.” (p. 15)

Since his life and death, Jesus has repeatedly been “taken” and used to by those who wished to have the power of a “king”. Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglass writes, “Unjust social relationality is not effectively sustained solely, if at all, through the use of brutal force.” She stresses that power, “particularly inequitable power, is not coercive or even repressive. Rather, it is productive. Power’s productive character begins with a ‘will to knowledge.’ That is, power itself generates the kind of knowledge it needs to be sustained. It enlists various communities of authority, such as the scientific and religious communities, to provide the knowledge base to legitimize the social, political, and institutional constructs of power itself.” (Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 72-73, emphasis added)

Various expressions of Christianity have likewise been complicit in seizing power. Powerful Christians have cooperated with harmful social and political structures that are rooted in distinctions of race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and more.

In using Jesus to gain political power, both Christians and non-Christians reject the Jesus of this story who himself rejected attempts to seize power and isolated himself so he could not be found and used. Ched Myers rightly perceives, “The truth is, the ‘battle for the Bible’ [the battle over how one interprets the Bible] today has increasingly less to do with theological divisions and allegiances and more to do with political and economic allegiances.” (Ched Myers; Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, p. 10.) Senator and Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock stated similarly; speaking last year at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA, Warnock said, “You are not following God when you allow your profit motive to silence your prophet motive.” That ‘profit motive” can be about money, but can also be about both money and political power.

As Jesus followers, we have to allow ourselves to be confronted by how we could be allowing or even participating in people taking the Jesus of these stories and using him today, instead of using the stories to support, or and bring liberation to those within our society deemed as “the least of these.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What would a Christianity whose emphasis is about resource-sharing in our world look like for you? What harmful fruit have you witnessed from Christianity’s political power grab in our society? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

logo

Renewed Heart Ministries is a nonprofit organization working for a world of love and justice.

We need your support to offer the kind of resources RHM provides.

Helping people find the intersection between their faith, compassion, and justice is work that continues to prove deeply needed.

Please consider making a donation to support Renewed Heart Ministries’ work, today.

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

And to those of you out there who already are supporting this ministry, we want to say thank you.  We could not continue being a voice for change without you.


sunrise through grass

Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

Herb Montgomery | July 16, 2021


Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories.”


Our reading this week is again from the gospel of Mark:

“The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things . . . When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)

This passage takes place in Mark’s narrative after John’s arrest and execution. It transports us all the way back to the words the gospel of Mark began with:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. The time has come,” he said. The reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15)

In Chapter 6, the author of Mark takes that first passage and enlarges it so that readers can understand what Jesus’ gospel looked like in practice. In short, Jesus is characterized as a miracle-working, folk healer announcing liberation for those who are oppressed, whether they’re oppressed by sickness or a sick system of injustice. Ched Myers reminds us that even the stories of individual healings were “symbolic action” of systemic confrontation. In his book Binding the Strong Man: a political reading of Mark’s story of Jesus, Myers correctly states, “[The acts of Jesus’] ‘divine power’ lay not in a manipulation of nature but in confrontation with the dominant order of oppression and in witness to different possibilities.” (p.146)

The itinerant liberator image of Jesus that we encounter in Mark raises a question of contrast between many preachers today and the Jesus they claim to be worshiping. As I’ve often said in the past, the gospels don’t show Jesus going from place to place trying to get people to say a special “sinners’ prayer” so they can have the assurance of going to some post mortem heaven when they die. Not at all. What we see instead is a Jesus who announces that the reign of heaven has come to earth, here, now, and it manifests not in future, afterlife assurance, but in concrete, material liberation from that which diminishes and oppresses human thriving in our lives today, right now, on earth. This is the picture we get from each of the synoptic gospels.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the reign of God, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)

As you go, proclaim this message: The reign of heaven has come near.Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. (Matthew 10:7-8)

But he said, I must proclaim the good news of the reign of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The reign of God has come near to you.’ (Luke 10:9)

So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere. (Luke 9:6)

The section of Mark we read this week includes the stories of Jesus feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish, and having twelve basketfuls left over. This story draws our attention to Jesus’ concern for people’s concrete, material needs. Many scholars also believe that this story may point to an early form of eucharist among early Jesus followers: a shared meal, a shared resource, of bread and fish that was later subsumed by what today’s eucharist of bread and wine.

Regardless, the scene is not about heaven or later, but about what people are experiencing here on earth right now. It speaks to the earthly, liberation-centered gospel taught by Jesus, not the heaven-centered gospel about Jesus that many within Christianity teach today. There is a difference between the two gospels and these differences are well worth our time to explore and understand. (See James M. Robinson’s The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, p. 1-2)

Two statements that have kept me centered in Jesus’ gospel of making a difference here on earth rather than in a gospel about Jesus focused primarily on getting to heaven come from the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in his classic work, God of the Oppressed.

“For theologians to speak of this God, they too must become interested in politics and economics, recognizing that there is no truth about Yahweh unless it is the truth of freedom as that event is revealed in the oppressed people’s struggle for justice in this world.” (p. 57)

“There can be no Christian theology that is not social and political. If theology is to speak about the God of Jesus who is revealed in the struggle of the oppressed for freedom, then theology must also become political, speaking for the God of the poor and the oppressed.” (p. 75)

For Cone, following Jesus was political, not in the partisan sense but in the sense that politics is about how power and property are distributed among the people. When we define politics like this, Jesus’ teachings were deeply political and all about a social peace that comes from justly distributing what humans need in their daily lives to thrive. This was God’s will as taught within Jesus’ gospel: humanity’s collective thriving.

In this focus, Jesus is standing squarely in his own Hebrew prophetic tradition:

“Everyone will sit under their own vine

and under their own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

for the LORD Almighty has spoken. (Micah 4:4)

What might it mean for us today, with our post-enlightenment, naturalistic, material worldview, to follow Jesus, proclaim “the reign of God,” and “heal the sick”?

As we consider our social context, there is much sickness that we Jesus followers can address. With so many U.S. churches having hosted July 4 celebrations recently, we can address the sickness of Christian nationalism. What about the sicknesses of White supremacy and its offspring, American exceptionalism? What about the sicknesses of racism, sexism, misogyny, classism, and cisgender-heterosexism? What about the sickness of ableism? Even if we hold a worldview where “healing the sick” or “casting out demons” no longer resonates, we can focus on the substance of our work and whether or not that substance looks like the Jesus of the story or like a 2,000-year-old religion about Jesus that has evolved in his name.

Whether we call it the reign of God or God’s just future or simply a world that is a safe, compassionate, and just home for everyone, working for it is the work I believe Jesus-followers are to be about. Anything less is a betrayal of the ancient stories. Our work may have a different focus than the work we see Jesus doing in the stories, and still be considered Christian by certain sectors within Christianity. Nonetheless, the contradiction between our stories and the Jesus story remains.

Can the themes of our work be found in Jesus’ work in the gospels? Is that Jesus passionate about the things we’re passionate about? In my journey, I’ve had to come to terms with the reality that the Christian elements I was most passionate about were elements that the Jesus of the story never spoke about, and the things the Jesus of the story was passionate about were things I didn’t care about. It’s not been easy to admit, and making corrections and aligning my story with the Jesus story isn’t always easy either. That work for me is still ongoing today. But, even with the hard times, I can look back and say the journey has so far been worth it.

That the journey is worth it is my prayer for you too. I pray that as we allow our stories to look more like the Jesus story, and as we work together on making our world here and now a better place, we will look back one day, even at the hard times, and say, “It was a journey worth taking.”

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does a focus on “concrete, earthly liberation” mean to you? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Speaking Truth to Those in Power

sculpture on capitol building

Herb Montgomery | July 9, 2021


Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them . . . Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity . . . Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philips wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, It is not lawful for you to have your brothers wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, Ask me for anything you want, and Ill give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring Johns head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, Johns disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6.14-29)

The parts of this story corroborated by extrabiblical sources are that John the Baptist was arrested and ultimately executed by Herod the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great). One reason could very well have been John’s outspoken criticism of Herod’s second marriage to Herodias. Herod was first married to a Nabatean princess. Herod threw that marriage away to marry Herodias, who was the wife of another Herod. We now know from historical records that the gospel of Mark records the detail about Herodias’ first husband incorrect, though. Herodias was never married to Herod’s brother Philip. Regardless, John may have been criticizing the way in which Herod took Herodias as his second wife.

In Jewish Antiquities, Josephus doesn’t mention Herod’s marriage as the reason for John’s death, but focuses instead on John’s popularity with the crowd and thus his power over the masses:

“Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. Herod, who feared that the great influence John had over the masses might put them into his power and enable him to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best to put him to death. In this way, he might prevent any mischief John might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late. Accordingly John was sent as a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I already mentioned, and was put to death.” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.118-119)

This story is an example of a familiar theme in the Hebrew prophets: the call to speak truth to unjust powers. The phrase “Speak Truth to Power” has its origins in the American Friends Service Committee in 1955 (see Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence). Yet the idea is ancient. Here are just a few examples of Hebrew prophets speaking truth to power in the Hebrew scriptures:

“Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: Let my people go.’” (Exodus 5:1)

“Then Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your masters house to you, and your masters wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.” (2 Samuel 12:7-10)

“When [Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” “I have not made trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. But you and your fathers family have. You have abandoned the LORDS commands and have followed the Baals.” (1 Kings 18:17-18)

“The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear me, you heavens! Listen, earth! For the LORD has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me . . .Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:1-17)

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there: Hear the word of the LORD to you, king of Judah, you who sit on Davids throne—you, your officials and your people who come through these gates. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.’” (Jeremiah 22:1-3)

“When Jonahs warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” (Jonah 3:6)

“And the word of the LORD came again to Zechariah: ‘This is what the LORD Almighty said: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.” (Zechariah 7:8-10)

“Then I said, ‘Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of Israel. Should you not embrace justice?’” (Micah 3:1)

“There are those who hate the one who upholds justice in court and detest the one who tells the truth. You levy a straw tax on the poor and impose a tax on their grain. Therefore, though you have built stone mansions, you will not live in them; though you have planted lush vineyards, you will not drink their wine. For I know how many are your offenses and how great your sins. There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” (Amos 5:10-12)

What about us? What does it mean for us to speak truth to power today?

What are some ways in which we, even if our sphere of influence is limited, can speak truth to those in power?

Remember, there are consequences to speaking truth to those in positions of power. Those in power rarely responds well to having truth spoken to them. John the Baptist’s story illustrates those consequences: he was executed. As the late Rev. Dr. James H. Cone used to say, “The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.” Perhaps the combination of sounding outrageous, along with the threat of consequences, is why so few of us actually practice speaking truth to power when we have the opportunity.

Maybe we can start smaller than speaking truth to someone like Herod. Maybe we can begin with committing to tell the truth, period. Then, if and when the opportunity arises to speak to power, we will already be in the habit of speaking the truth. In this spirit, I have always cherished this statement by Leo Tolstoy at the end of his book The Kingdom of God is Within You:

“I do not say that if you are a landowner you are bound to give up your lands immediately to the poor; if a capitalist or manufacturer, your money to your workpeople; or that if you are Tzar, minister, official, judge, or general, you are bound to renounce immediately the advantages of your position; or if a soldier, on whom all the system of violence is based, to refuse immediately to obey in spite of all the dangers of insubordination. If you do so, you will be doing the best thing possible. But it may happen, and it is most likely, that you will not have the strength to do so. You have relations, a family, subordinates and superiors; you are under an influence so powerful that you cannot shake it off; but you can always recognize the truth and refuse to tell a lie about it. You need not declare that you are remaining a landowner, manufacturer, merchant, artist, or writer because it is useful to mankind; that you are governor, prosecutor, or tzar, not because it is agreeable to you, because you are used to it, but for the public good; that you continue to be a soldier, not from fear of punishment, but because you consider the army necessary to society. You can always avoid lying in this way to yourself and to others, and you ought to do so; because the one aim of your life ought to be to purify yourself from falsehood and to confess the truth. And you need only do that and your situation will change directly of itself. There is one thing, and only one thing, in which it is granted to you to be free in life, all else being beyond your power: that is to recognize and profess the truth.” (Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You, p. 433)

Truth telling will always carry consequences, some beneficial and others difficult to bear. We may not always have the courage or power to change unjust conditions ourselves, but maybe we can do the bare minimum of speaking the truth about them.

May we at least have the courage to speak truth. Because that truth will enable and empower us to choose to change things after all.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What does the phrase “speaking truth to power” mean to you in your sphere of influence? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

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A Community of Dependence and Connectedness

diverse hands forming network

Herb Montgomery | July 2, 2021


“In Jesus’ vision for human community in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we take responsibility for taking care of one another, not to establish dependency, but because we already are dependent on one another.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. Where did this man get these things?” they asked. Whats this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isnt this the carpenter? Isnt this Marys son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Arent his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits. These were his instructions: Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6:1-13)

This is one of my favorite sections in Mark’s gospel because it lays out a life-giving value of communities throughout human existence: our interdependence. Stephen Patterson explains in his book The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins:

What does it actually mean for the empire of God to come? It begins with a knock at the door. On the stoop stand two itinerant beggars, with no purse, no knapsack, no shoes, no staff. They are so ill-equipped that they must cast their fate before the feet of a would-be host. This is a point often made by historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan. These Q folk are sort of like ancient Cynics, but their goal is not the Cynic goal of self-sufficiency; these itinerants are set only for dependency. To survive they must reach out to other human beings. They offer them peace—this is how the empire arrives. And if their peace is accepted, they eat and drink—this is how the empire of God is consummated, in table fellowship. Then another tradition is tacked on, beginning with the words Whenever you enter a town.This is perhaps the older part of the tradition, for this, and only this, also has a parallel in the Gospel of Thomas (14). There is also an echo of it in Pauls letter known as 1 Corinthians (10: 27). Here, as in the first tradition, the itinerants are instructed, Eat what is set before you.Again, the first move is to ask. The empire comes when someone receives food from another. But then something is offered in return: care for the sick. The empire of God here involves an exchange: food for care.” (Stephen Patterson, The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74-75)

In our context, American capitalistic individualism and independence, which too often masquerade as freedom,  dependence as a good thing and a life-giving ethic for human thriving may be a bit difficult to get our minds around. Nonetheless we can make a strong case that the good news that Jesus taught was deeply rooted in what it meant to be community, and that included our dependence on one another. Jesus scholar James Robinson writes in his book The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News:

[Jesuss] basic issue, still basic today, is that most people have solved the human dilemma for themselves at the expense of everyone else, putting them down so as to stay afloat themselves. This vicious, antisocial way of coping with the necessities of life only escalates the dilemma for the rest of society . . . I am hungry because you hoard food. You are cold because I hoard clothing. Our dilemma is that we all hoard supplies in our backpacks and put our trust in our wallets! Such security” should be replaced by God reigning, which means both what I trust God to do (to activate you to share food with me) and what I hear God telling me to do (to share clothes with you). We should not carry money while bypassing the poor or wear a backpack with extra clothes and food while ignoring the cold and hungry lying in the gutter. This is why the beggars, the hungry, the depressed are fortunate: God, that is, those in whom God rules, those who hearken to God, will care for them. The needy are called upon to trust that Gods reigning is there for them (Theirs is the kingdom of God”) . . . Jesus’ message was simple, for he wanted to cut straight through to the point: trust God to look out for you by providing people who will care for you, and listen to him when he calls on you to provide for them.” (James M. Robinson, The Gospel of Jesus: The Search for the Original Good News, Kindle Location 138)

The Jesus of the synoptic gospels called his listeners and followers back to a practice of mutual dependence. He called them to let go of their hoarded resources, and to be the ones God sends to help those who don’t have enough for today. He invited them to trust that if a crisis should arise in future for us, we should not trust in our once-hoarded resources, but in those we have fostered community alongside. We should trust that they will be there for us. We don’t gain the ability to sleep at night because we have hoarded enough wealth. We gain the ability to sleep at night because no matter what the future holds, we are not facing it alone. As a community, we have each other.

Many years ago, I remember a very wealthy person asked a question at a seminar I was conducting: “Does that mean we should all just sell our retirement accounts and give it all away?”

That’s a great question. My response was no. As long as we are living in a society that so highly prioritizes independence and isolated individualism even for the elderly, retirement accounts are vital. But what can we do? We can take steps to foster community, rejecting the kool-aid of individualism, and work toward shaping a society where our dependence is recognized and celebrated, a community that makes retirement accounts obsolete. At that point, people will no longer need such large retirement accounts because we will all take care of the aged among us. Social security, done correctly, is a good thing, and we should be seeking to create a society where our elderly can thrive, not just barely survive.

In Paul’s ministry, a different principle enters the early church:

“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Dont we have the right to food and drink? Dont we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lords brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? . . . If others have this right of support from you, shouldnt we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 9:1-6, 12)

Here we see a move away from the dependence value in what may have been the original teachings of Jesus. Mark’s gospel was written after Paul, but most scholars believe it preserves the early ethic of dependence.

Luke’s gospel shows the tension growing between Paul’s independence and the early Jesus community’s dependence. By the time of Luke, followers are now permitted to take a staff, and what is shared is now labelled as “wages.”

“Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, Peace to this house.If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. When you enter a town and are welcomed, eat what is offered to you. Heal the sick who are there and tell them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.” (Luke 10:4-9, emphasis added.)

In the Didache we also see parameters being made in response to possible abuses of the original dependence ethic:

Let every apostle who comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain more than one day; or two days, if there’s a need. But if he remains three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet.” (Didache: The Lords Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, Chapter 11)

This is more than an interesting discussion among Jesus scholars though. We have to ask ourselves today: what do we as Jesus followers in the 21st Century find most life-giving—Paul’s independence or Jesus’ interdependence?

In Jesus’ vision for human community in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts, we take responsibility for taking care of one another, not to establish dependency, but because we already are dependent on one another. Jesus’ community chose to practice mutual aid, resource sharing, and wealth redistribution.

We also have that choice before us. Could it be that societies that survive are not societies that practice the survival of the individual fittest, where the strong eat the weak, but societies that define “fittest” as one where we all take care of one another, including those who may be weak.

Our choice today is the same as in the Jesus story: individualism, independence, and competition or community, cooperation, and connectedness; dependency or interdependency.

We are connected whether we realize it or not. We are also dependent on one another whether we cherish that idea or not.

Life is born when we share.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Can you share ways that you experience our dependence on one another? How can we support and care for each other in that interdependency? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


A Preferential Option for the Excluded

woman sitting alone

Herb Montgomery | June 25, 2021


“This is what liberation theologians refer to as a preferential option. The word preferential means a preference or partiality and implies favor or privilege. The word option does not mean that the preference is optional, but rather implies a choice between multiple possibilities. In other words, a preferential option means a deliberate choice among many possibilities and the choice to prefer those whom the present system marginalizes or makes vulnerable to harm.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark.

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leaders house to say, Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the childs father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, Talitha cum,” which means, Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat. (Mark 5:21-43)

The story of Jairus’ daughter and I have history. Over twenty years ago now, between our elder daughter and our younger daughter, Crystal and I went through the horrible experience of having two still births back-to-back. During this chapter of our lives, we were both pretty fundamentalist, and the story of Jairus’ daughter, especially the phrase talitha cum, held special meaning for us.

Today, this story is meaningful to me for different reasons. As is typical in the gospel of Mark, our reading this week includes one story interrupted by another. Mark repeatedly uses the narrative technique of interrupting one story with a secondary one. The first story envelopes a second story to direct listeners’ focus and understanding of both.

We are meant to compare these two stories, giving both stories space to explain the other. One hint of this is their parallelism: Jairus’ daughter is 12 years old and the woman with the vaginal hemorrhage has suffered for 12 years as well.

The contrasting social locations of these recipients of Jesus’ work is one of the most consequential comparisons for our justice work today. We’ll discuss more in a moment which social location is centered.

There is so much to address in both of these stories. Worth exploring in our limited time this week is the woman’s willingness to violate the letter of the Torah and her community’s taboos about uncleanliness and touching those considered unclean. By violating those rules, she arrives at the life-giving spirit and intention of the Torah according to her interpretation. Imagine how the woman in this story had to wrestle with the Torah’s commands to find the courage to reach out and touch even the hem of Jesus’ garment.

When a woman has her regular flow of blood, the impurity of her monthly period will last seven days, and anyone who touches her will be unclean till evening. Anything she lies on during her period will be unclean, and anything she sits on will be unclean. Anyone who touches her bed will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. Anyone who touches anything she sits on will be unclean; they must wash their clothes and bathe with water, and they will be unclean till evening. Whether it is the bed or anything she was sitting on, when anyone touches it, they will be unclean till evening. If a man has sexual relations with her and her monthly flow touches him, he will be unclean for seven days; any bed he lies on will be unclean. When a woman has a discharge of blood for many days at a time other than her monthly period or has a discharge that continues beyond her period, she will be unclean as long as she has the discharge, just as in the days of her period. (Leviticus 15:19-25)

In the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Temple Scroll, we read of special places, quarantine spaces, that were to be kept outside the city and its population for lepers, those with skin diseases, those “afflicted with discharge,” menstruating women, and women giving birth (see Johann Maier, The Temple Scroll: An Introduction, Translation, and Commentary, p. 14).

This passage from Leviticus, the social taboos for those considered unclean, and restricting those considered unclean to areas designated for quarantine away from the rest of the community might also explain why she was so reluctant to come forward in the story. She feared reprisal for the violation of even being in a crowd bumping into each other, much less touching Jesus too.

This leads me back to the subject of social location and the tension we find in this narrative between the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman sick for 12 years. Not all teachings are universal. Today, some things are acceptable for those in marginalized social locations but not acceptable or even offensive if practiced by those who are more centered or socially privileged. There are things women can say and do that men should not. There are actions appropriate for Black communities and other communities of color that are not acceptable for White people. During Pride month, for example, there are some actions that straight people should not do because they would be appropriative. Social location matters.

When we read this week’s narrative, we typically contrast the social locations of Jairus, a named synagogue leader, and this nameless woman who, because of her condition, is meant to live her life in quarantine and exiled from the rest of the community, including her family.

But the story actually prioritizes and centers this marginalized woman over the named, male, synagogue leader.

This is what liberation theologians refer to as a preferential option. The word preferential means a preference or partiality and implies favor or privilege. The word option does not mean that the preference is optional, but rather implies a choice between multiple possibilities. In other words, a preferential option means a deliberate choice among many possibilities and the choice to prefer those whom the present system marginalizes or makes vulnerable to harm.

In this story, Jesus practices a preferential option for someone his society is excluding, and he deliberately chooses to prioritize her over someone his society shows great preference for. The fact that the male synagogue leader gets a name in this story while the woman remains nameless is a hint.

Consider the playground teeter-totter for a moment. When one side is lifted up higher than the other, placing the same equal force on both ends of the board would result in no change whatsoever. For the board to balance, one side must receive the upward force or pressure while the other side is left alone.

In the same way, in a hospital, more critical cases are prioritized over less critical ones, and not because some lives are more valuable than others but because some lives are in danger of greater threat. This is exactly the reality missed by those who respond to Black Lives Matter with “All Lives Matter. It’s because all lives matter that Black lives matter. Black lives are under greater threat in our present system and therefore, Jesus followers especially should practice a preferential option for Black lives.

The practice of a preferential option is also at the heart of the reparations debate, which received media attention this spring around the anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Tulsa was not an isolated event. All throughout this country, systems and individuals who practice a preferential option for Whiteness have stolen generational wealth from Black communities. For equity to be reestablished and for distributive justice to be achieved, we must now practice a preferential option for those whose material wealth has been stolen.

In the game of Monopoly, you can’t give one player an advantage and then halfway through the game say preferential options are now unfair so no one gets any special treatment. That would leave the original preferential treatment in place. No, a preferential option must benefit those who’ve been disenfranchised until each person can experience an equitable chance in the game. Only then will both sides of the table be playing with the same rules.

Pride month is another example. The LGBTQ community has been shamed into hiding, denied basic human rights of employment, housing, and basic accommodations, and so during Pride month people can reject that shame and heterosexists’ attempts to label them as “less than.” Pride is not, as some Christians say, a rejection of humility. Pride for the LGBTQ community rejects being labelled as of less worth than others. Those who are falsely claiming that we should also have a “straight pride” month ignore the fact that we already have twelve months in a year when straight people are prioritized and told that they belong. As an LGBTQ friend of mine says, “LGBTQ Pride is the opposite of shame, not the opposite of humility.”

What this story doesn’t address is the way that Jairus’ daughter remains subsumed by him and his social location. A good question for us to wrestle with today is what is the right preferential option for Jairus’ daughter, the actual patient? Does she have to pay for the social status of her father? In the end, Jairus’ daughter also receives healing. In the end, both parties receive what they need. But to arrive there, Jesus chose a preferential option for a nameless woman forced to live on the outside of her community, over prioritizing the named leader that typically would have received the priority over others.

Who is the Jesus story calling you to practice a preferential option for this week?

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Who is the Jesus story calling you to practice a preferential option for this week? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Peace, Be Still.

 

calm sea scape

Herb Montgomery | June 18, 2021


I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, ‘Peace be still.’”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:35-41)

The story of Jesus calming the storm is the first nature miracle in the gospel of Mark. Until this point, the author of this gospel has been structuring narratives that subverted Jesus’ society. Jesus is an exorcist or healer in stories that subtly call into question the social power structures and who they benefited and marginalized.

But with this story, the author introduces a new side of Jesus. Now Jesus is also seen as having authority in relation to nature itself.

The first “sea” (lake) crossing in Mark’s gospel is part of a pattern in Mark of pairing important narratives. The second sea crossing is in Mark 6:45-53. The two feedings of the multitudes are another example.

Most scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was intended for both Jewish and non-Jewish Jesus followers. In the early church, making the Christian tent large enough to bring together both Jewish followers of Jesus (in Galilee and Judea) and Gentile followers of Jesus (from Paul’s travels and ministry) was a top priority. So in this first sea crossing, the author of Mark is invoking narratives that would have been meaningful to both groups of Jesus followers. By calling the lake “sea” this gospel recalls Hebrew narratives about Yahweh and the sea,” such as the ark of Noah, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the reference to storms in the Psalms:

“By his power he stilled the Sea; by his understanding he struck down Rahab [mythical sea monster, symbol for Egypt].” (Job 26:12)

“He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. (Psalms 107.29)

“He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry; he led them through the deep as through a desert.” (Psalms 106:9)

For Hellenistic Jesus followers, Jesus’ ability to command the wind and the sea would have been one of the few acts in the gospel of Mark comparable to the stories of Hellenistic miracle workers. Having the ability to command wind and sea associated a person with the powers attributed to Zeus (wind) and Poseidon (sea).

There may be another apologetic association being made in this story as well. Many scholars throughout the centuries have noticed in this story parallels with stories told about a contemporary of Jesus, Apollonius of Tyanna. Placing Jesus on the level of Apollonius and other wonder-workers in that world highly honored Jesus. Because of classism, for those who favored the miracle narratives of Apollonius, Jesus was the imposter, a miracle worker for the uneducated, the poor, and those on the margins of society. (Mark’s Christology had not yet evolved to the levels we see in the much later gospel of John.)

Also noteworthy are parallels between this story and the stories told during the Flavian dynasty of Roman emperors’ miraculous powers over nature. The Flavian era was the time period most scholars believe the gospel of Mark was written. Jesus commands the winds and waves of the body of water referred to as Lake Tiberius (after Tiberius Caesar Augustus). All four canonical gospels compare Jesus with Roman imperialism and contrast the Pax Romana with the peace resulting from Jesus’ teachings on including the marginalized, community resource-sharing, and redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.

As we’ve found in the gospels, if Jesus is to be a superior choice to other options in the world of the gospel writers and their audiences, the authors must first portray Jesus on equal ground with others competing for followers in that time.

But what does this story say to us today? How can the Jesus story inform our work of justice, love and compassion in our various contexts and social settings?

I don’t think that we now have to portray Jesus as superior to everything else around us to follow the teachings of that Jewish prophet of the poor from Galilee. Superiority, supremacy, exceptionalism, and/or a “chosen” status’ have only proved to divide us within the human family. These ways of telling our stories have been harmful at best and lethal at worst. I believe it’s enough to consider the values, ethics, and teachings within the Jesus story and determine whether the fruit of those teachings still have anything of intrinsic value to offer us and can inform our work of making our world a safe, compassionate just home form everyone. If they can, then following the Jesus of the gospel stories in our context of the 21st century will be life-giving, too.

These are the questions we should be wrestling with as Jesus followers two thousand years removed from these stories’ beginnings. And I believe there is a lot within the Jesus stories that is still worth listening to. The golden rule, certain themes found in the Sermon on the Mount, the value of love above all else—these alone are worthy of our practice.

I don’t believe Jesus still needs to “command the wind and the waves” in our postmodern, post-enlightenment world to still be worthy of being following. In fact, the supernatural story elements that were persuasive in the 1st Century are too often now obstacles in our 21st Century.

I don’t need a Jesus who supernaturally commands our natural forces. I need a Jesus who can speak into our racial struggle for justice today. I need a Jesus who speaks into our economic crisis alongside the poor and in the face of those made richer in this pandemic. I need a Jesus who can speak into our ecological crisis and humanity’s threatened existence on our planet. I need a Jesus who can speak into women’s struggle for an equitable society where misogyny in all its ugliness still threats to capsize their thriving. I need a Jesus that can challenge the great windstorm and the waves of deep homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in the Christian church that threatens to capsize the lives of LGBTQ young people — not just the winds and waves of a Galilean lake. These young people wonder if anyone cares that they are perishing. They need a Jesus to speak to their Christian families and, in the face of bigotry, speak in the name of inclusion, affirmation, celebration, and love, saying, “Peace be still.”

What storms of injustice in your world, in your society, in your community, in your family do you need someone to add their voice to, alongside yours, and speak peace, love, compassion, “peace, be still?” We don’t need a peace that is only a passive lull in our struggle for equality. We need a peace that is the fruit of an established justice; a peace where we can do more than just survive, but find what we need to thrive. It’s not a stilling of the voice of those crying out for justice that we need; we need a stilling of the forces that threaten those lives daily.

The Jesus who speaks that peace is the Jesus I need and I would guess you do, too.

As Jesus followers in our contexts today, the peace in these gospel stories that can speak most loudly to us and our present, concrete, material need in our natural world and bring genuine peace rooted in established justice?

The Jesus that speaks that peace is the kind of Jesus I want sleeping in the bow of our society’s boat today.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Where would you like to see a societal peace that is rooted in distributive justice end the tempest of injustice and exclusion that threatens to capsize people’s thriving, today? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone? 

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Misclassifying As Weeds

rainbow heart

Herb Montgomery | June 11, 2021


This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.


Our reading this week is from the Gospel of Mark:

He also said, The reign of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, With what can we compare the reign of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)

The society for which the gospel of Mark was written considered mustard seeds an invasive, noxious weed. If a gardener did not uproot it from their garden, theyd soon not have a garden left to tend. Then, as now, weeds should be rooted out to stop them taking over, crowding out intentionally planted crops .

Other gospels describe mustard seed growing into large bushes with branches, or trees. But mustard seed doesn’t actually grow like that. We have negatively labelled as a weed something that ends up growing into a large bush with branches and that positively benefits those around it. Weve classified as a weed something that is actually a fruit-bearing tree.

Let me say it again for clarity. Actual mustard plants dont grow into trees. What we have in this story is something that grows into a tree. Its not mustard weed. Its something entirely different from mustard. Weve made a mistake!

I think that was Jesus’ point.

This weeks reading compares Jesus’ new community of nonviolence, mutual aid, and resource and wealth redistribution to a beneficial tree seen as a weed-like-threat by the privileged, powerful, and propertied. The way 1st Century farmers viewed the mustard plant was the way the privileged and elite viewed Jesus teachings and the community of Jesus-followers centered in those teachings. They were to be rooted out. They were as welcome in society as weeds are in a garden.

But then Jesus takes a hard right turn. What people think is a noxious mustard weed doesnt produce the same results as they all expect mustard to. It doesnt take over the garden like a weed and leave nothing for anyone. No, instead it becomes a tree, a source of shelter and food for all in its vicinity. Its originally viewed as a weed, but it does not bear the same fruit as a weed.

The image Jesus uses to represent his community, the tree mistaken for a weed, is from a story in the Hebrew apocalyptic book of Daniel. In Daniel, Nebuchadnezzars kingdom was likened to a fruit tree that provided food, a resting place, and shelter to all. Jesus adapts this imperial image to describe his non-imperial community that provides for those the present system exploits.  Its imagery also communicates to those opposing Jesus’ work, Youre working so hard to keep me out of your garden as if Im a mustard weed, and are trying to uproot me completely, but you have misjudged me. My fruit is not harmful. It is life and peace and good for all.”

This weeks reading isnt saying that all weeds should be welcomed in the garden or that we shouldnt weed when gardening. Its asking us to check our assumptions about what we have classified as weeds. What if weve made a mistake? What if weve judged something to be a harmful weed, but that judgment is quite incorrect?

The elite in Jesuss society were beginning to view his teachings on nonviolent resistance and wealth redistribution as a weed that must be removed. And so he calls them to see their judgment as a mistake. What Jesus was teaching could lead to justice, liberation and ultimately societal peace, rooted in an expression of distributive justice for all. What they viewed as a weed to be rooted out was actually a tree of life.

Misclassification Today

As I consider the misclassification of the mustard seed in this weeks reading and the misclassification of Jesuss reign of God in the gospels, I cant help but think of the misclassification of my LGBTQ friends today.

This weeks reading calls us all to question our classification of trees as weeds. Similarly, the call to affirm, embrace, and include LGBTQ Christians in the church is not a call to affirm things that are intrinsically harmful but a call to help us recognize that the LGBTQ community should not be on the harmful” list in the first place.

This month is Pride Month, and RHM’s recommended reading for June is Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation by Dale B. Martin. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If you have not read it, get a copy and do so. You’ll thank me.

From time to time, I get letters from other Christians asking me to explain how I can claim to follow Jesus while affirming the LGBTQ community. These writers typically use misinformed language such as lifestyle” when they are actually referring to same-sex intimacy. They are often also profoundly certain about how clear the Bibles teachings are, and they compare my LGBTQ friends with those who are “sexually immoral,” and child-molesters.” They want me to explain how I could affirm LGBTQ people’s allegedly sinful behaviors.”

A sexual ethic rooted in the golden rule is a different conversation. I do want to say this loud and clear. Many of my LGBTQ friends are more devoted Christians than I am. I think specifically of a lesbian friend of mine in Ohio. She has been with her wife for over twenty years, and I admire their commitment to each other. It’s absurd to even compare her to those who are “sexually immoral” or child-molesters”.

As a side note, I also want to add that many straight people practice things Christian, ascetic, purity-culture standards don’t approve, yet no one’s going about saying heterosexuals  shouldn’t get married or become pastors. It’s not enough to keep a system in place of making some group an outsider, or less than, while saying LGBTQ people shouldn’t be hurt by it. If this kind of system is still in place, we’re all at risk.  Do we have really to have to measure up to Christian purity culture (which many Christians also reject) to be treated with respect and kindness?

There are two lists in the New Testament that the writers of the letters I receive often mention:

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the [arsenokoitai], nor [malakoi] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV), emphasis added)

Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV), emphasis added)

The term homosexuality” was invented in the late 1800s, but did not appear in any English language Bible before 1946. For most of history, Christians have read 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 very differently than their recent translations suggest they might. The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate into English.

Arsenokoitai is found in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Malakoi is found only in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Dale Martin’s book Sex and the Single Savior is extremely helpful here. Martin makes a compelling case that no one living today definitely knows what arsenokoitai meant and at best we are guessing at definitions. Surprisingly, Martin shows that whatever arsenokoitai was, most of the extra-biblical vice lists that include arsenokoitai categorize it with acts of economic exploitation and oppression, not with sexual violations where we would expect to find it if it refered primarily to sexual acts.

Malakoi is much easier to define, yet the definition reveals rank misogyny. Again, Martin makes a compelling case in quoting several extra-biblical sources where malakoi was used. Each time malakoi appears, there is no question the term refers to men directly or indirectly acting in any way that society would have defined as feminine. Some ancient authors go so far as to indicate it would be better to be dead than to be a woman as defined by their society. They list the litany of qualities that that ancient culture considered woman-like”: drinking too much wine, having too much sex, loving gourmet food, hiring a professional cook, being weak in battle, and enjoying luxury all fall into the classification of being unmanly. Malakoi often refers to heterosexual men who wore things like nice clothing, jewelry, wore cologne, shaved, did their hair, and cared for their skin to aid them in appearing attractive in their heterosexual pursuits. It meant being soft” or effeminate. In that patriarchal society, women were degraded as being inferior to men and therefore it was considered to be a vice, malakoi, for a man to act in any way like them. Martins conclusion is “willful ignorance or dishonesty” could allow us to define malakoi so narrowly as to refer to “passive homosexuals” now.

Martins textual scholarship resoundingly agrees with Brownsons conclusion in The Bible, Gender and Sexuality:

When we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Brownson, The Bible, Gender and Sexuality, p. 275)

After 1946, however, an obvious homophobic bias enters New Testament English translations, and it is not warranted by the original languages. The original languages address men being “like women,” which is deeply misogynist and produces a whole set of interpretive problems. But translations after 1946 introduce generic homophobia instead.

I have a hunch that some translators may be trying to avoid the misogyny in the original text. Yet these translations produce demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings, and that fruit should warn us about their roots.

Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of Torah obedience that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. As a community, LGBTQ people are vulnerable in our time.

Through generations of prejudice and mistranslation, we have misclassified as a weed something that isn’t a weed at all. In fact, our misclassifying the LGBTQ community is whats producing noxious weed-like results including disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but death.

We must remember:

  • Saying Im sorry” is not enough.
  • An apology that calls straight Christians only to more loving and respectful forms of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
  • The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
  • Kindness and respect are not synonyms for reparation for harm done in the past.
  • Allowing even respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not creating safe space.”

That last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is not merely about theology. It’s really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Pauls writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a persons skin color than their actions. Its not something to be changed; its who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is one example of Christian attempts to “weed out” a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, its a form of genocide.

Learning to listen to those who are not like us as they share the harm they’ve experienced through misclassification offers us the opportunity to choose between compassion and fear. Our differences can be scary, but they dont have to be. Although we do have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Someone who is different from you is also someones child. They are someones sibling. They are someones best friend.

Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.

And to all my LGBTQ friends who may be reading or listening this week, I offer as encouragement the words of Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary:

Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (in Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. Share an experience of how you came to realize you had also misjudged something or someone? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

 


Binding the Strong Man

rope

Herb Montgomery | June 4, 2021


Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

And the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, He has gone out of his mind.” And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, He has an unclean spirit.” Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:20-35)

Most scholars agree that this section of Mark is a compilation of sayings that were originally separate and were compiled into a compelling narrative. This week, we will review that narrative, looking for anything in it that can speak to our justice work today.

In the story, Jesus has returned home and is again surrounded by controversy. Characteristic of Mark, the Beelzebub narrative is enveloped by a larger story. In other words, Mark begins with one story, interrupts with a related story, and then returns to the story he was telling first.

Our narrative, then, begins with Jesus’ family. Kinship systems in Jesus’ day established a person’s identity, vocation, and social location. Some scholars see in the story evidence of a power struggle in the early church between those who claimed leadership positions based on being related to Jesus (like Jesus’ brother James) and those who were not related but followed Jesus with just as much dedication. The story describes the second group of unrelated followers and a crowd being inside the home, with Jesus’ blood family outside. While this may indeed be an story about blood relationships, there is also a deeper point being made here.

Social change often involves questioning the values and social domestication one has received from one’s family. Outgrowing these values is often part of the work we must do to participate in making our world a safe and equitable home for everyone. We must build on the good we gained from our families and also be willing to evolve beyond the harmful. Speaking out when one’s extended family is aligned with the opposition is difficult. I know this personally. For me, family rejection was especially painful in addition to rejection I was already experiencing as I chose to take definitive stands for those communities I witnessed being harmed.

Jesus’ familys motive in the story could be preserving the family as well as preserving Jesus. Perhaps he was going to get himself in trouble and possibly even them too. But if that was their motive, Jesus’ family was too late. Government officials are already on their way to Jesus to press charges. Our story highlights how one’s family and the state can work together to keep one subordinated to the status quo.

When the Temple state officials arrive, they make their accusation: Jesus is casting out demons not by the power of God, but by the power of the head demon himself. This language may be difficult for many people with our modern worldview, but let’s step into the 1st Century context of the story to understand it better. Hollenbach tells us:

“Witchcraft accusations represent a distancing strategy which seeks to discredit, sever, and deny . . . Upstart controllers of spirits are, by their very power over spirits, suspected of causing what they cure.” (P. Hollenbach, Jesus, Demoniacs, and Public Authorities: A Socio-Historical Study, p. 577)

I think of the way men threatened by strong women have historically marginalized, silenced, removed and murdered those women by accusing them of “witchcraft.” This gives us insight into the dynamics of this story in Mark. These are not just stories of mythical demons and exorcisms. That shallow understanding misses the broader point. These stories are political. As Theissen correctly states, “The mythological events here reflect political ones” (Gerd Theissen, The First Followers of Jesus: A Sociological Analysis of the Earliest Christianity, p. 76), Those benefiting from the status quo in these stories were threatened by Jesus’ calls for change and they tried to delegitimize him.

The theme of leaders accusing Jesus of being out of his mind or under the control of demons is in each of the gospels including John:

“Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, ‘He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?’ Others were saying, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?’ (John 10:19-21)

In American society today, this same distancing tactic is used, though not necessarily with the labels of demon-possession. Some Christian communities do still use this language toward those they politically oppose. A local Baptist pastor has accused me of being demon possessed because of my affirmation of LGBTQ folk. Other labels that can be used to delegitimize in our society today include “terrorist,” “socialist,” and “communist.”

In our story, Jesus is engaged in acts of liberation, humanization, and in Jewish language, jubilee! Yet those threatened by his liberation work are working to have him dismissed as a lunatic or a traitor to his Jewish community. I’m reminded of the warning of Malcom X centuries after Jesus: If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing” (in Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements, p. 93).

The statement in our passage that arrests my attention the most is:

“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’”

In Mark’s story, the leaders’ goal is to make people afraid of those working for their very liberation. I see this happening all the time here in West Virginia, where easily manipulated people in our communities are made to fear those working for their good and so the majority vote against their own interests. We witnessed stark examples of this in the last election here in my state. Fearing and demonizing liberators is not arbitrarily “unpardonable.” It’s intrinsically “unpardonable” because the very social elements and changes that would bring a person concrete liberation are made out to be feared and held suspect.

Juan Luis Segundo speaks to the intrinsically unpardonable nature of this “sin” in Capitalism versus Socialism:

The blasphemy resulting from bad apologetics will always be pardonable . . . The real sin against the Holy Spirit is refusing to recognize, with theologicaljoy, some concrete liberation that is taking place before one’s very eyes.” (p. 254)

Ched Myers describes people not recognizing the Spirit in sterner terms:

“To be captive to the way things are, to resist criticism and change, to brutally suppress efforts at humanization—is to be bypassed by the grace of God.” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 167)

There is evidence that many in the early church took this teaching very seriously. In what was believed to have been an early church manual, the Didache, we read:

“And every prophet who speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven.” (Didache Ch. 11)

Let’s close this week with the Jesus saying in our story.

“No one can enter a strong mans house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”

After making this statement, Jesus would later be seen in the Temple state’s “house,” overturning the tables of economic exploitation and resisting the harming of the most vulnerable people. That was his society’s strong man.

Today our strong man could be capitalism, White supremacy, Christian nationalism, cisheterosexism, and more. All of these working separately and together comprise the strong men that we must bind in our time. What does binding the “strong man” as a thief in the night look like for us in our system? What does it look like in the context of working toward justice, compassion, and safety for all who are marginalized and made vulnerable? And how should we go about doing it?

The answers to these questions will only result from conversation and engagement with the communities most harmfully impacted by our status quo. As followers of the Jesus in our story this week, we must be about that work.

Let’s get to it.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. What are some “strong men” that need dismantling both within our religious and secular communities? How are false labels used and applied to oppose this work and to create fear in others? How have you experienced this in your own journey? Share with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


A Better Way to Tell Our Stories

notebook on bible

Herb Montgomery | May 28, 2021



Classifying our flesh, bodies, and material world or nature as, at best, unimportant or disposable and, at worst, evil or something to be saved from has yielded deeply harmful, destructive fruit throughout Christian history . . . That disregard then led to a privatized, personal, individualistic form of Christianity that was complicit in the oppression of vulnerable populations. We encounter the fruit of this today whenever Christians speak negatively of social justice and related movements for a more equitable society . . . Are there better ways to tell our stories?”


Our reading this week is from the Johannine community’s version of the Jesus story.

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the reign of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mothers womb and be born?” Jesus answered, Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the reign of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, You must be born from above.The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?” No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:1-17)

In this week’s reading, Nicodemus and Jesus are both speaking for the communities they represent: Nicodemus represents Judeans identified with the community of Pharisees and Jesus represents the Johannine community.

The writer explains the differences between them by naming the flesh as bad and the spirit as good. I believe there are more wholistic, healthy, and bodily affirming ways to tell the Jesus story today in our context than this contrast. The dualistic way of classifying our material being and world as negative or disposable and the spirit as positive and of sole value evolved into a major component of later Christian gnostic beliefs. This became the foundation of the postmortem focus of Christianity over the concrete realities people faced in our present world. It also gave rise to a solely inward focus on one’s spiritual well-being, a focus and emphasis that too often produced disregard for oppressions and/or aggressions a person was experiencing in their daily material lives. That disregard then led to a privatized, personal, individualistic form of Christianity that was complicit in the oppression of vulnerable populations. We encounter the fruit of this today whenever Christians speak negatively of social justice and related movements for a more equitable society. When Karl Marx labeled religion as the “opiate of the masses,” religious disregard for people’s material suffering was why.

Today, though, we can tell the Jesus story in better ways. As Miguel De La Torre states in his recently published book, Decolonizing Christianity, “Christianity was never about what one believes or professes but what one does” (p. 112).

What we do is not related to the popular purity preaching we find in some Christian circles. Rather it’s about how we show up in the world in response to concrete injustice, both private and systemic. It’s a doing that’s not just concerned with charity but also addresses “establishing justice” in our communities and society at large (Isaiah 42:4 cf. Amos 5:15; Isaiah 9:7; 16:5; Psalms 99:4).

Classifying our flesh, bodies, and material world or nature as, at best, unimportant or disposable and, at worst, evil or something to be saved from has yielded deeply harmful, destructive fruit throughout Christian history. Whenever a movement to return to the teachings of the Jesus of the synoptics gospels has emerged in Christianity, that movement includes concern for our material world as well as the humanity of those being unjustly treated. Saint Francis of Assisi is just one example.

Given the ecological crisis, risks to our continued existence on Earth, and an increased social consciousness of systemic injustice, a more wholistic way of telling the Jesus story could be healing for our time. It could also be vital. What we need tosday is a balanced relation of the material and spiritual, not a dualistic vilification of one and the lifting up of the other.

Lastly I want to address this portion of our reading this week:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Over the last several weeks, we have repeatedly discussed the harmful results of the myths of self-sacrifice and redemptive suffering when being held up as an example for marginalized or disenfranchised communities to adopt. In this passage from John, nothing has to be interpreted as pointing to Jesus’ death as the substitutionally salvific means by which others are saved.

Let’s read this closely.

There was nothing substitutionary about the bronze serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. The serpent didn’t die for the people. It was simply raised on a pole for anyone to look at in faith that by so doing they would be healed. In the same way, I believe that in following the life-giving teachings in the Jesus story, our feet are moved from the path of death to the path of life. The teachings in the Jesus story must be lifted up for people to encounter and, if they see inherent wisdom in them, follow. We could interpret “whoever believes in him” to mean “whoever follows him,” as it does elsewhere in the Jesus story.

I also love how the passage paints God, not as condemning and in need of appeasement with the death of Jesus. Rather John’s God is already poised to save us from the path of intrinsic death that we are already on. I find it meaningful that the term “saved” in the text can just as accurately be translated as healed.

There is most definitely so much in our world today, both personally and societally, individually and systemically, that is in need of healing. This reminds me of the words of Delores Williams in her classic Sisters in the Wilderness:

Black women are intelligent people living in a technological world where nuclear bombs, defilement of the earth, racism, sexism, dope and economic injustices attest to the presence and power of evil in the world. Perhaps not many people today can believe that evil and sin were overcome by Jesus’ death on the cross; that is, that Jesus took human sin upon himself and therefore saved humankind. Rather, 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.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, pp. 130-131)

Do we find teachings lifted up in the Jesus story that aid our work of healing our world’s pain today? If we do, then it is in this healing that our passage rings true.

This week, let’s be a source of healing in our world. Let’s lift up Jesus, too, as one who can deeply inform our work of setting our communities, society, and entire world right side up, making it a safe, equitable, and compassionate home for everyone.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. In Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation, Dale B. Martin correctly states, “”All interpretation is subjective and interested, people’s interpretations of texts, even those about Jesus, are a product of who they are and where they live.” (p. 101)  Are there stories in the Gospels that you wish there were better ways to tell? Discuss with your group.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week