Branches Grafted to a Poisonous Vine

 

grapes attached to a vine

Herb Montgomery | April 30, 2021


“Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. What does it mean for American Christians to live as Jesus did?”


Our reading this week is from John’s gospel:

“I am the true vine, and my Mother is the gardener. She removes every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, and prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it may bear more fruit. You’re already clean because of the message I’ve told you, ‘Remain in me as I remain in you. Just as the branch can’t bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you’re the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in them bears much fruit, because you can’t do anything without me. Someone who doesn’t remain in me is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; they are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want to and it will be done for you. My Mother is glorified in this: that you bear much fruit and remain my disciples.’” (John 15:1-8, Divine Feminine Version (DFV) of the New Testament)

I love this translation of John, probably because my late mother was an avid gardener and it reminds me so much of her. It’s important, after almost two centuries of Christian patriarchy gendering God as exclusively male, that we recognize women bear the image of the Divine just as much as men do. Gendering God as male, female, and with nonbinary images gives us an opportunity to break the patriarchal monopoly on the symbols we use for God. As Elizabeth Johnson writes in the classic work She Who Is:

“While officially it is rightly and consistently said that God is spirit and so beyond identification with either male or female sex, the daily language of preaching, worship, catechesis, and instruction conveys a different message: God is male, or at least more like a man than a woman, or at least more fittingly addressed as male than as female… Upon examination it becomes clear that this exclusive speech about God serves in manifold ways to support an imaginative and structural world that excludes or subordinates women. Wittingly or not, it undermines women’s human dignity as equally created in the image of God.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 826)

The symbols used in this week’s reading from John are branches, a vine, and a gardener. These symbols’ function was to encourage the early followers of Jesus to keep Jesus’ sayings in memory and to continue following his teachings. That is what it meant for those early followers to “remain” in Jesus in the context of these specific symbols. 

The symbol of fruit bearing is also curious. The branches were to bear the vine’s fruit. In other writings of the Johannine community, we get a hint as to what kind of fruit the early followers of this Jesus were to bear:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

Although the passage we began with focuses on bearing fruit rather than being a dead or withered branch that bears nothing, in 1 John 2:6 we see that the kind of fruit one bears matters too. The synoptic gospels make this point :

“No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn bushes, or grapes from briers.” (Luke 6:43-44)

So what was the fruit of Jesus’ life? And what should be the fruit of the lives of those who claim to follow that Jesus?

In other words, what does it mean for Christians to live as Jesus did?

A few things come to mind almost immediately. 

The Jesus of the gospel story cared about economic justice for the poor:

“They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers.” (Mark 12:40 cf. Mark 12:42-43)

“Looking at his disciples, he said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)

“I needed clothes and you clothed me.” (Matthew 25:36) 

The Jesus of the story was in favor of wealth redistribution:

“Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” (Luke 12:33)

The Jesus of the story cared about centering those being marginalized:

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

The Jesus of the story taught for debt forgiveness:

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” (Matthew 6:12)

“Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both.” (Luke 7:42 cf. Matthew 18:27)

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about incarcerated people:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me . . . to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” (Luke 4:18-19)

“I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:36)

The Jesus of the story cared about liberating the oppressed:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me . . . to set the oppressed free. (Luke 4:18-19)

The Jesus of the story cared about making sure the sick in society were taken care of:

“I was sick and you looked after me” (Matthew 25:36)

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

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

The Jesus of the story taught nonviolence:

“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him, ‘for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.’” (Matthew 26:52)

And so much more.

Let’s pause, though, for just a moment and look at the little bit we have listed here. 

Concern for economic justice for the poor, wealth redistribution, centering of the marginalized, cancellation of oppressive debt, liberation for incarcerated people, liberation for the oppressed, ensuring people’s health care needs were taken care of, and lastly, nonviolent resistance to systemic injustice. 

What would it look like if this were the platform of Christians today?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the for-profit prison industrial complex?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the school to prison pipe line for Black people in the U.S.?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to the demand for universal healthcare when so many people, even those with health insurance, have to file bankruptcy? 

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to police brutality?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to student loan cancellation?

What does a response like the Jesus of the story look like in regards to civil rights for our LGBTQ siblings?

What about the industrial war machine that drives our national deficit and diverts funds away from our social good?

What about proposals to defund Social Security and Medicare for the elderly?

The list could go on and on because it’s in these specifics that we see what could it look like for Christians today to live as Jesus lived, to remain in him, and to bear the fruit we all remember the original Vine for.

Today, my concern is not that Christians aren’t producing fruit with our lives. It’s not that we are withered branches. We produce copious amounts of fruit. 

I’m concerned about the type of fruit so many White, straight, cisgender Christians are producing. Is this fruit life-giving or is it poisonous? Does our fruit look like the fruit of the original vine, and if not, what vine have we allowed ourselves to be grafted into instead? If the vine we’re connected to is nationalistic, supremacist, patriarchal, or violent, it’s not the vine Jesus calls us to remain in. 

Does your life bear fruit that resembles the fruit at the heart of the Jesus story? Is it life-giving or life-inhibiting for the vulnerable within our society? Is the fruit of your life a blessing or a curse? Does it ensure life and thriving for those society deems least of these or is it death-dealing?

As the Johaninne community taught:

“Whoever claims to remain in him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:6)

It would be better for branches that bear poisonous fruit to wither, die, and be thrown into the fire by Mother God, then to go on harming others. 

But even better than that would be for those branches to choose to be grafted once again back into the original vine and begin to bear fruit that can feed and heal the nations. (Revelation 22:2; Ezekiel 47:12).

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What social issues or challenges we are presently facing would you like to see more Christian support for, today? What are some ways you can support these changes and encourage fellow Jesus-followers to do so, as well? 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

 


 

Imagery of a Good Shepherd

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.

 


shepherd with sheep

Herb Montgomery | April 23, 2021


”This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.“


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (John 10:11-18)

Our passage focuses on the image of Jesus as a shepherd. This was a popular image of Jesus before Western Christianity became fixated on crucifixes. Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock write in the prologue of their groundbreaking book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire about how they saw early Christians use this imagery over and over:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean. In July 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. For example, Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). “He is not here” (Mark 16:6). He most certainly was not.” (Italics added.)

Even today when you do a simple image search for Jesus, you’ll get ten or more images of a Jesus on a cross for every single image of a shepherd. Early Jesus followers had a very different focus: not the cross of Jesus but a living Jesus whose resurrection overcame and reversed everything his death accomplished. (See The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection)

In this week’s passage from John, the focus isn’t the death of Jesus but Jesus taking life back up after his death. Even the purpose of Jesus’ laying down of life was that he might take it up again. The focus is not death, but taking hold of life—resurrection.

During this post-Easter season, remember that the cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching. The powerful, propertied, and privileged intended it to be permanent. The cross was meant to silence his calls for societal change, but the resurrection overturned that silencing. In the story, the resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death. It answers death with death-reversing life; it answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. I love this statement by Elizabeth Johnston that squarely defines act of Jesus’ crucifixion as a sin. And if it is a sin, then it is contrary to the will of God:

“Along with other forms of political and liberation theology, feminist theology repudiates an interpretation of the death of Jesus as required by God in repayment for sin . . . Jesus’ death was an act of violence brought about by threatened human men, as sin, and therefore against the will of a gracious God . . . What comes clear in the event, however, is not Jesus’ necessary passive victimization divinely decreed as a penalty for sin, but rather a dialectic of disaster and powerful human love through which the gracious God of Jesus enters into solidarity with all those who suffer . . . The victory of love, both human and divine, that spins new life out of this disaster is expressed in belief in the risen Christ.” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is, Kindle Location 4183)

The resurrection overturns the unjust state-sanctioned violence, and places Divine solidarity on the side of Jesus and all others who have unjustly suffered violence at the hands of the state. Today, that Divine solidarity includes Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Pamela Turner, Korryn Gaines, Yvette Smith, Miriam Carey, Shelley Frey, Darnisha Harris, Malissa Williams, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnston, Kendra James, Tyisha Miller, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and many, many more. This story that so many White Christians hold dear puts God on the side of these lost Black lives. And where we stand, whether in solidarity, neutrality, devil’s advocacy, indifference, or even opposition, reveals where we stand in relation to the God of the Jesus story. We are only with this God when we are with them.

The resurrection places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the state-murdered community. The symbol of resurrection sends a message of justice overcoming injustice, love conquering hate, life overcoming death, and an unjust tomb not being able to hold justice back.

Today we need a new story of justice overcoming in the end. I don’t believe justice inevitably overcomes injustice on its own. If the moral arc of the universe is to bend toward justice, we must choose to bend it that way.

In the wake of the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin for George Floyd’s murder, I have to question if we will bend that arc systemically toward justice? As we daily witness Black lives cut down by police, we have a lot of work still to do.

If things are going to change, we are going to have to choose to change them.

Before we close, I will offer one word of caution concerning our reading this week. I see the image of the Shepherd in this passage held in contrast with the myth of redemptive suffering. The myth of the redemptive suffering teaches those who are abused and oppressed to be willing to suffer in order to change the heart or “redeem” their oppressors. As Brown and Parker rightly state, “The problem with this theology is that it asks people to suffer for the sake of helping evildoers see their evil ways. It puts concern for the evildoer ahead of concern for the victim of evil. It makes victims the servants of the evildoers’ salvation.” (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, For God So Loved The World? p. 16)

There is a difference between the self-sacrifice of disempowered people and the self-sacrifice of empowered people for those they love. John’s gospel is believed to be the latest written in our cannon. In John, Jesus has evolved in the story telling into an incarnate, cosmic figure, an empowered figure. The phrase, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord,” indicates that John is placing Jesus in a position of empowerment not disempowerment.

In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the story is different. Jesus belongs to the community of the disempowered. His death is an act of sanctioned, state violence. His life is taken from him and then his death is powerfully overturned in the symbol of the resurrection. It would be irresponsible and dangerous to hold up the self-sacrifice of Jesus in John’s version of the Jesus story as an example to be followed by the community Jesus belongs to Matthew, Mark and Luke. In synoptic gospels, Jesus is a disempowered person. Jesus, unlike Paul, is not even a Roman citizen. As Howard Thurman so eloquently writes,

“Jesus was not a Roman citizen. He was not protected by the normal guarantees of citizenship—that quiet sense of security which comes from knowing that you belong and the general climate of confidence which it inspires. If a Roman soldier pushed Jesus into a ditch, he could not appeal to Caesar [as did Paul]; he would be just another Jew in the ditch. Standing always beyond the reach of citizen security, he was perpetually exposed to all the ‘arrows of outrageous fortune,’ and there was only a gratuitous refuge—if any—within the state.”(Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 34)

In the synoptics, Jesus is a non-citizen, a marginalized person, who was in the end executed by the state for standing up to injustice. At minimum we need to perceive the difference between the synoptic’s Jesus and John’s Jesus. As a parent, I understand the imagery of John’s gospel. I have sacrificed for my children throughout their lives. I know what that kind of sacrifice feels like. And that kind of sacrifice is a very different from asking survivors, the abused, the oppressed to sacrifice themselves to change the hearts and minds of their abusers or the laws and policies unjust systems.

However you interpret the shepherd’s willingness to lay his life down for his sheep as contrasted with the commitment level of a “hired hand” here in John, what we don’t read in this passage is a sheep being willing to lay down their life to change the heart of an oppressive shepherd. The self-sacrifice of victims and survivors, people whose self is already being sacrificed and whose humanity is already being denied, only causes further damage. Justice in this context would be achieved by taking hold of one’s humanity, not sacrificing it.

And that leads me to my overall point this week.

Justice only wins in the end if we make it win.

We are in need of new stories of justice overcoming in the end in our context today. And I believe we can create those stories with our choices, here and now. When we choose to make justice ultimately win, not just in isolated occurrences but systemically, we are determining whether our ancient, cherished stories of justice overcoming ring true or are merely desperate, wishful fairytales.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing through the lens of a good shepherd rather than a substitutionary, crucified Jesus impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? Contrast and 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

 


Social Repentance and Change

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.


Urban brick wall

Herb Montgomery | April 16, 2021


“American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.”


This week’s reading is another post-Easter appearance story. This one is found in the gospel of Luke:

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:36-48)

The gospels’ post resurrection appearance stories follow a familiar pattern that meets the expectations of the communities each version was written for.

Some of the Greeks’ expectations appear in the Works of Plato:

“So that if any one’s body, while living, was large by nature, or food, or both, his corpse when he is dead is also larger; and if corpulent, his corpse is corpulent when he is dead; and so with respect to other things. And if again he took pains to make his hair grow long, his corpse also has long hair. Again, if any one has been well whipped, and while living had scars in his body, the vestiges of blows, either from scourges or other wounds, his dead body also is seen to retain the same marks. And if the limbs of anyone were broken or distorted while he lived, the same defects are distinct when he is dead. in a word, of whatever character any one has made his body to be while living, such will it distinctly be, entirely or for the most part for a certain time after he is dead.” (The Works of Plato: The Apology of Socrates, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Phaedrus, Theaetetus, Euthyphron, and Lysis by George Burges, p. 229)

Plato goes on to say that this permanence in life and after death also applies to a person’s soul.

I don’t think we can make any conclusions about post-mortem realities from the passage in Luke, but these stories were certainly written to meet the expectations of the communities they were written for. They matched their expectations for what the bodies of any person who had died or been killed would be like.

The section of this week’s passage that I believe holds the most promise for our work today is the part that points to the resurrection of Jesus as offering repentance and forgiveness to the society in which Jesus was crucified.

To perceive what connects the resurrection, repentance, and forgiveness we need to understand the social nature of forgiveness.

For the Hebrew prophets, forgiveness was not merely for personal, private or individual sins, but also for the people’s political, public, social sins. Consider the social sins and the national nature of forgiveness in the following passages:

“ . . . the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.” (Isaiah 33:24)

“Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city.” (Jeremiah 5:1)

“No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

“In those days, at that time,” declares the LORD, “search will be made for Israel’s guilt, but there will be none, and for the sins of Judah, but none will be found, for I will forgive the remnant I spare.” (Jeremiah 50:20)

“Lord, listen! Lord, forgive! Lord, hear and act! For your sake, my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name.” (Daniel 9:19)

“Take words with you and return to the LORD. Say to him: Forgive all our sins and receive us graciously, that we may offer the fruit of our lips.” (Hosea 14:2)

“When they had stripped the land clean, I cried out, “Sovereign LORD, forgive! How can Jacob survive?” (Amos 7:2)

“Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

Again, the forgiveness written of in each of these passages is a social forgiveness for the sins of systemic injustice and oppression of the vulnerable and marginalized within the writer’s society.

The kind of repentance that leads to that kind of forgiveness, then, is a social rethinking of the current social course of injustice and implies a society, not just a few individuals, choosing to embrace a different path filled with a more just set of policies for the polity.

American, Western Christianity, like American society overall, has a long history of focusing on individuals ‘ personal, private sins rather than the public, political, systemic sins of the larger society. If followers of Jesus are only focussed on private or personal, individual sins, then public social injustice that benefits the powerful goes unaddressed, untouched, and unchanged.

Exchanging the public for the personal, or choosing to focus on the private instead of the political, has had a long history, especially among Christians, of being used by the powerful to protect their privilege.

This past Easter I read a powerful poem by the very talented poet, Kaitlin Shetler. The poem’s title is State. The very first line reads:

“my sins did not
nail him to
the cross
that was the state”

In the poem Shetler goes on to contrast confusing the “personal” for the “principalities,” and the “personal” with “state-sanctioned oppression.”

You can read the poem in its entirety, and I recommend doing so, on Kaitlin’s Facebook page for her poetry: https://www.facebook.com/kaitlinhardyshetler/posts/144155307119366

And now we can put all the pieces of this week’s passage together. The passage states,

“The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day so that repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations.”

Remember what we’ve been saying for the past few weeks. The cross interrupted Jesus’ life-giving ministry and teaching, and it was intended to be permanent. It was meant to silence Jesus’ calls for change, but the resurrection overturns it. The resurrection undoes and reverses everything accomplished by Jesus’ death. It overturns the state-sanctioned violence that places Divine solidarity on the side of the Roman state instead of on the side of the kind of society envisioned in the teachings of Jesus. The resurrection causes the vision of that kind of society to be born anew and to live on in the lives of Jesus’ followers. The resurrection doesn’t conquer death with more death, even just one more death, but by resurrecting life. It answers death with death-reversing life. It answers death-dealing injustice with life-giving justice. And it places the God of the Jesus story squarely on the side of justice and in the midst of the crucified community, the marginalized, the excluded, the vulnerable.

The resurrection unequivocally proclaims the solidarity of the God of the Jesus story with the marginalized in any given society. And in this way, I believe, that symbol of resurrection, of love conquering hate, of life overcoming death, of justice not being able to be held by an unjust tomb, has the potential to inspire a kind of social repentance, a rethinking of a society’s current path. The hope is that this rethinking will cause a different doing. That we will choose to shape society differently. And it’s that different doing that, within the justice tradition of the Hebrew prophets, is envisioned as ultimately bringing social change and liberation, i.e. forgiveness of social sins and different path set for the future.

This is a story that is meant to give us pause. It’s a story that is meant to create in us a reassessment of the kind of society we find ourselves surviving in. And it’s a story that is intended to awaken in us the choice to shape a different kind of society, where those presently marginalized are centered, where surviving is replaced with thriving, a society that is a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone.

It may take a more political lens of interpreting the Jesus story for us to arrive at this conclusion and vision of our present society as well as our work toward something better. But it’s a choice that I believe in the end will be worth it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing through the lens of the Jesus story on public, political, systemic sins of our larger society, rather than only our personal, private, individual sins impact your own Jesus following and your engagement with public social injustice? 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


Being Sent for the Work of Justice


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.


city land scape

Herb Montgomery | April 9, 2021


“We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor? Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated? Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people? Is the ‘Lord’s favor’ we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled? What does concrete good news look like in our social context today?”


This week’s reading is from John’s version of the Jesus story:

“On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’ Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’ Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:19-31)

There is a lot in this passage that would be tempting to focus on this week. Thomas’ doubt. Jesus having a physical body that can be touched and that feels hunger, post-Easter, despite John’s gospel being associated with early gnosticism (see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.11.1).

But what jumps out at me most this year is this phrase:

“‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’”

This theme of following Jesus’ example repeats with the Johannine community:

“Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he walked.” (1 John 2:6)

The Jesus of John’s story doesn’t do things instead of us, as our substitute so we don’t have to do them. This Jesus calls his followers to participate in his actions alongside him.

This idea isn’t only in John’s gospel. Consider this passage from Mark:

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.’” (Mark 10:38)

As Marcus Borg and John Crossan write in their book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem:

“For Mark, it [the story] is about participation with Jesus and not substitution by Jesus. Mark has those followers recognize enough of that challenge that they change the subject and avoid the issue every time.” (Kindle location 1592)

Over the last few weeks, we have discussed the harmful teaching that suffering is redemptive. I don’t believe that Jesus invites us into his death but does invite us into following the example of his life, even if unjust oppressive systems threaten us with death for doing so. I understand this is a subtle difference in interpretation but it creates a huge difference in how we response to injustice. Suffering some type of pushback for speaking out against injustice may be part of our story, but not because it is intrinsic to following Jesus. I don’t believe we have to die to reach Jesus’ vision for human society. He showed us a path toward distributively just living, and death only enters the picture when those threatened by a distributively just world choose to threaten death or some other penalty if we keep stirring up trouble and disturbing the unjust status quo.

I believe this is a much healthier alternate interpretation to being willing to take up Jesus’ cross and following him. Rather than calling us to be passive in the face of injustice, Jesus calls us to action, even if that action should end up with us being put on a cross. It’s not about choosing to die, but about choosing life, even in the face of death. Jesus didn’t choose the cross. His social opponents choose to answer him with a cross. Jesus chose a life of calling his society to justice, like the Hebrew prophets within his own Jewish tradition, even if they threatened to kill him.

So what does it mean to follow Jesus’ life and, in the words of our passage this week, to be “sent” as Jesus was “sent”?

I resonate deeply with the characterization we find in Luke’s gospel:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

So this declaration invites some questions of us:

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the poor?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to the incarcerated?

Is the good news we cherish also good news to oppressed and marginalized people?

Is the Lord’s favor we cherish also good news to those longing for their debt to be cancelled?

We must be careful not to spiritualize these elements. People didn’t get put on Roman crosses for talking about spiritual transformation. Romans killed people who made claims about concrete changes to the status quo, a status quo that benefitted some in society at the expense of the many.

What is does concrete good news look like in our social context today, for those who are materially poor, physically incarcerated, socially and economically oppressed, exploited and marginalized, or so deeply indebted that they feel they will never be free?

Firstly, I think of our current criminal justice system and those in various areas of the U.S. having their charges expunged due to the legalization of cannabis. I think of the calls for universal health care, and how so many families have to file for bankruptcy when they become sick, even if they do have health insurance. I think of the calls to forgive student loans that are so inescapable that they even impact seniors in retirement. Our trans and non-binary siblings also come to mind, especially with Thursday, April 1, being International Transgender Visibility Day. I wonder how good news from Christians to this oppressed and marginalized community could be so very different if we would stop to listen to and believe their experiences including harmful experiences from our hands.

Secondly, there’s a phrase in this week’s passage that is deeply harmful to our Jewish siblings. In one translation, the passage states, “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews…” I’m thankful that the translators of the NIV altered their translation to say “Jewish leaders,” a change that lends room for distinguishing between classes in the society where this story took place. The gospel writers are clear that Jewish common people loved Jesus (Mark 14:2). But with each successive version of the Jesus story told—first Mark, then Matthew and Luke, and finally John—antisemitic hatred or fear of the Jewish people grows more and more. It’s barely present in Mark, but by the time we get to John, as in our passage this week, it is full-blown.

We can do better today. “Fear of the Jews” has a long and violent history in the Christian tradition. We can choose to tell the Jesus story in better, more life-giving, different ways, today.

And lastly, I want to draw attention in this passage to the scars of injustice remaining on Jesus’ body. This is not a story that promises all the scars of past injustice will one day disappear. They may not. This story points the way for people to make reparations for past mistakes and make better choices today that move us closer to a more distributively just future, God’s just future.

It’s to the work of creating that just future in our present world that we are sent today.

As he was sent back then, so are we now.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. What are some parallels you notice in Luke 4:18-19 with much needed justice work in our society 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

The Good News of Forceful Nonviolent Resurrection

Herb Montgomery | April 2, 2021


“The good news was not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather was that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life! . . . These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice -overturning resurrection.”


Our reading this week if from Mark’s version of the Jesus story,

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8)

Much of Western Christianity is commemorating Holy Week this week, this coming Sunday being Easter Sunday. (Our Eastern Orthodox siblings will be celebrating Easter on May 2.) Christians spend a lot of energy this time each year reflecting on the closing scenes of the Jesus story: Jesus’ last week, his death, burial, and resurrection. Leaders in many communities will interpret these events this weekend.

The early followers of Jesus varied widely in how they interpreted the closing scenes of Jesus’ life. Some viewed his murder as somehow salvific on a cosmic level, while others focused their attention on how his resurrection overcame, reversed, and undid the interruption Jesus’ death posed to his life-giving ministry and caused that life to live on.

These varied voices and explanations are in our sacred scriptures as well. The canon made room for all of them.

The voices that speak most deeply to me are the voices that emphasize God’s overcoming of the unjust death of Jesus through bringing Jesus back to life rather than those that reframe such an unjust act as having a secret Divine purpose.

The book of Acts offers just one biblical example of this focus and emphasis. In Acts, the good news is not that Jesus died, or even that he died for you. The good news rather is that this Jesus whom they killed, God has brought back to life!

Consider the “good news” identified in each of the following passages:

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.” (Acts 4:33, emphasis added)

“Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:22-24, emphasis added)

God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:32-33, emphasis added)

“When Peter saw this, he said to them: ‘Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.’” (Acts 3:12-16, emphasis added)

“Then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4:10-11, emphasis added)

The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:30-32, emphasis added)

“You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:36-43, emphasis added)

“We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (Acts 13.32-33, emphasis added)

These passages are not without their problems. Yet what is unmistakable in each of them is their emphasis, not on salvific purpose in Jesus’ death, but in how God overcame the injustice of his murder through a life-giving, death-conquering, death-reversing, injustice-overturning resurrection.

Womanist theologians have shaped my thinking and faith journey. I owe them so much.

During the Easter season, for instance, I’m often reminded of statements like this one from Delores Williams in her classic work, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk:

“Matthew, Mark and Luke suggest that Jesus did not come to redeem humans by showing them God’s ‘love’ manifested in the death of God’s innocent child on a cross erected by cruel, imperialistic, patriarchal power. Rather, the texts suggest that the spirit of God in Jesus came to show humans life— to show redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relations between body (individual and community), mind (of humans and of tradition) and spirit. A female-male inclusive vision, Jesus’ ministry of righting relationships involved raising the dead (those separated from life and community), casting out demons (for example, ridding the mind of destructive forces prohibiting the flourishing of positive, peaceful life) and proclaiming the word of life that demanded the transformation of tradition so that life could be lived more abundantly . . . God’s gift to humans, through Jesus, was to invite them to participate in this ministerial vision (“whosoever will, let them come”) of righting relations. The response to this invitation by human principalities and powers was the horrible deed the cross represents—the evil of humankind trying to kill the ministerial vision of life in relation that Jesus brought to humanity. The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/ or evil.” (Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, p. 130)

For Williams, it is the resurrection and the kingdom of God theme in the Jesus story that is life-giving. Not Jesus’ death. Jesus came, not to die, but to show us how to live. “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)

I also want to lift up the voice of Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who weaves even nonviolence into the meaning of the resurrection story event. She writes:

“The resurrection is God’s definitive victory over crucifying powers of evil. Ironically, the power that attempts to destroy Jesus on the cross is actually itself destroyed by the cross. The cross represents the power that denigrates human bodies, destroys life, and preys on the most vulnerable in society. As the cross is defeated, so too is that power. The impressive factor is how it is defeated. It is defeated by a life-giving rather than a life-negating force. God’s power, unlike human power, is not a ‘master race’ kind of power. That is, it is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of all life. This is resurrecting power. Therefore, God’s power never expresses itself through the humiliation or denigration of another. It does not triumph over life. It conquers death by resurrecting life. The force of God is a death-negating, life-affirming force . . . God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself . . . through the resurrection, God responds to the violence of the cross–the violence of the world—in a nonviolent forceful manner. It is important to understand that nonviolence is not the same as passivity or accommodation to violence. Rather it is the forceful response the protects the integrity of life. Violence seeks to do another harm, while nonviolence seeks to rescue others from harm. It seeks to break the very cycle of violence itself. The forces of nonviolence actually reveal the impotence of violent force. That God could defeat the unmitigated violence of the cross reveals the consummate power of the nonviolent, life-giving force that is God.” (Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, p. 178-180)

This weekend, for those of us who choose to commemorate the resurrection event in the Jesus story and all the meaning that story event symbolizes, I hope that our easter rituals will further shape us into death-negating, life-giving people. That we will commit more deeply to life-affirming work in our world. That together we will continue to work toward a world that is a safe, compassionate, and distributively just home for everyone.

Happy upcoming Easter to each of you.

Love can conquer hate.

Equity can conquer fear and greed.

Inclusion can conquer exclusion and marginalization.

Life-affirmation can conquer death-dealing.

Forceful nonviolence can conquer life-negating violence.

The golden rule is this way of life.

Jesus is risen.

He is risen indeed.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. How does focussing on injustice-overturning resurrection in the Jesus story inform, inspire, and empower you in your own participation in justice work today? 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

The Politics of Jesus

Herb Montgomery | March 26, 2021


The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead . . . certainly we can do the same with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.


Our reading this week is from Luke’s telling of the Jesus story:

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The first thing that stands out to me about Luke’s telling of the Jesus story is how it differs from Matthew’s. The message from Heaven comes to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. Joseph is the recipient in Matthew’s version, but in Luke, it’s Mary. Luke has already patterned one pregnancy so far after the pregnancy stories of other matriarchs in Hebrew folklore: for Luke, Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, is a contemporary Sarah (Genesis 17-18) or Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2).

But Mary’s conception is quite different. Mary is not past child-bearing age like Elizabeth and the other women of the Jewish stories. Her story is not a miracle after the birthing time of life has passed. Mary is young, independent of men, and quite capable of bearing children. She is at the beginning of her life journey. Her conception will be a miracle of quite a different nature.

This point must not be lost: Whereas miraculous conception does exist in Jewish tradition, Divine conception does not. Divine conception is a Roman cultural tradition, and Luke’s story will repeat the point that the Jesus of this story should be compared and contrasted with Caesar and Roman social values.

Not one conception in Jewish history fits Luke’s description of how Mary conceived Jesus. But in Rome, the story of a virgin conceiving and giving birth to the son of God had a political context.

The most well-known Roman story of divine conception was of Caesar Augustus. In The Lives of Caesars, Suetonius cites Discourses of the Gods by Asclepias:

When Atia had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep, while the rest of the matrons also slept. On a sudden a serpent [Apollo] glided up to her and shortly went away. When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband, and at once there appeared on her body a mark in colors like a serpent, and she could never get rid of it; so that presently she ceased ever to go to the public baths. In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo. (94:4)

Many scholars believe the divine Caesar Augustus’s conception story was patterned after Alexander the Great’s conception legend as well as that of the Roman general Scipio Africans, imperial conqueror of the Carthagians. In these Greco-Roman stories of divine conceptions, male gods impregnating human women to bear great leaders or conquerors were quite common.

So it appears that Luke’s divine conception of Jesus, with the spirit of God coming upon Mary (Luke 1:35), laid the foundation for concluding Jesus was superior to Caesar. That world did not think conception by human-divine interaction was impossible, and so Luke’s telling of the Jesus story had to begin on equal footing with Caesar’s. Consider the story of Jesus’ birth through these political lenses, not modern scientific ones. Luke contrasts the politics of Jesus with the politics of Rome. Both Jesus and Caesar were referred to as the son of God, both were referred to as the savior of the world, and both were also titled as Lord. Luke’s listeners would have to decide which peace was genuine, lasting and life-giving: the Pax Romana from Caesar, his armies, and his threats, or the peace found in following the teachings of Jesus. Roman peace came through military conquering and the imposed terror of threat toward anyone who disrupted Rome’s peace. Jesus’ peace came through a distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough and everyone sat under their own vine or fig tree (Micah 4:4).

We’re now nearing the season of Easter. Let’s not forget that Jesus was crucified by Rome not because he was starting a new religion, but because his political teachings on justice for the oppressed, marginalized, and disenfranchised threatened to upset the status quo underlying the Pax Romana. His audience was growing and Rome had to silence his voice.

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, offer consistent political comparisons between Jesus’ vision for human society (God’s just future) and the status quo of the society Jesus found himself in instead. This makes me wonder how our own contemporary society’s political goals would fare if we compared and contrasted the values of the American dream with the values we find in the Jesus story.

How does imprisoning children on the southern border or anywhere else in the country compare with Jesus’ vision of world where no one is illegal?

How does forgiving student loan debt compare with Jesus’ vision for world where all debts are cancelled?

How does universal healthcare or health care as a human right compare with Jesus’ life of healing those on the margins of his society?

How does eliminating poverty or closing the vast wealth gap between classes and races compare with Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom that belongs to the poor?

How do reparations for America’s heritage of slavery and genocide compare with Jesus’ call for those with ill-gotten wealth to sell everything and give the proceeds to those they exploited?

How do police reform or abolition compare to a Jesus story where the central figure was the victim of state brutality himself?

Do the values of the Jesus story offer us something better today than the status quo the privileged and elite still desperately hold on to?

I don’t mean that our society should become Christian. Christianity has proven unsafe when it comes to protecting vulnerable human populations from harm: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and many others have been harmed and their stories have yet to be listened to in many sectors of Christianity today. Even the sacred text of Christianity has been too vulnerable to abuse by those with power, prejudice and bigotry. The recent murders in the Atlanta spas are yet another sad example. (Sadly White and/or colonial Christianity is the only form of the faith most of the world has been touched by.) Whatever one’s interpretation of Christianity’s sacred texts, the voices of those who have been harmed are still needed to ensure our interpretations are genuinely life-affirming and life-giving.

If Luke could compare Roman economic, political, and social policy with Jesus’s teachings, then certainly we can do so with economic, political, and social policies in our time. And if we see progressive social movements resonate with the values we find in the Jesus story, then certainly all of us who claim that story as the heart of our faith tradition could check ourselves. We could choose to be last in line to oppose those progressive visions for American society rather than being among the loudest opponents of distributively just change.

There are exceptions to this pattern. It burdens me that they are merely exceptions. Support for progressive movements that resonate with Jesus’ distributively just economic, political and social values could be the rule for Jesus followers today, if we would choose it. And conscious choices are exactly what it will take.

HeartGroup Application

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

2. What comparisons and contrasts can you make with Jesus teachings and current discussions in your own society regarding how we resources and power is distributed? 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

Reinterpreting the Easter Story

spring sunrise

Herb Montgomery | March 19, 2021


“The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the harmful message that suffering is redemptive. So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel?”


This week’s reading is from John’s gospel:

“Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus. Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him. Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12.20-33)

The statement that jumps out at me each time I read this passage are these words from Jesus: “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Statements like these seem to be more prevalent in John’s version of the Jesus story, and they trouble me. They bring to mind the writings and critiques of both womanist and feminist Christians who recount these passages’ destructive and even death-dealing fruit in their communities.

For example, womanist scholar Delores Williams, writing of how destructive holding up Jesus’ death as an example for Black women has been, states, “African-American Christian women can, through their religion and its leaders, be led passively to accept their own oppression and suffering— if the women are taught that suffering is redemptive” (Sisters in the Wilderness, p. 161).

She also writes, “As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred” (p. 132).

Two pages earlier, Williams explains, “The resurrection does not depend upon the cross for life, for the cross only represents historical evil trying to defeat good. The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it. Thus, to respond meaningfully to black women’s historic experience of surrogacy oppression, the womanist theologian must show that redemption of humans can have nothing to do with any kind of surrogate or substitute role Jesus was reputed to have played in a bloody act that supposedly gained victory over sin and/or evil.”

Similar reflections come from Christian feminist scholars like Elizabeth Bettenhausen, who writes, “Christian theology has long imposed upon women a norm of imitative self-sacrifice base on the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Powerlessness is equated with faithfulness. When the cross is also interpreted as the salvific work of an all- powerful paternal deity, women’s well being is as secure as that of a child cowering before an abusive father.” (Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. xii)

In the same book, Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker wirte in their ground breaking essay For God So Loved the World?—“Women are acculturated to accept abuse. We come to believe that it is our place to suffer . . . Christianity has been a primary—in many women’s lives the primary—force in shaping our acceptance of abuse. The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive.” (For God So Loved the World?, p. 1)

And in the book Beyond God the Father, Mary Daly writes, “The qualities that Christianity idealizes, especially for women, are also those of a victim: sacrificial love, passive acceptance of suffering, humility, meekness, etc. Since these are the qualities idealized in Jesus ‘who died for our sins,’ his functioning as a model reinforces the scapegoat syndrome for women” (p. 77).

So what do we do with the passage from John’s gospel? First, I understand how desperately some people in the early Jesus community needed to make sense of Jesus’ unjust execution. So many had placed their hopes for change and liberation in his teachings, and he had been executed by the very status quo he had spoken out against. I can imagine early followers grappling with what this all meant for them and their decision to follow Jesus. I understand why, especially with Paul’s popularity among Gentile Christians, so many would come to see Jesus’ death as salvific and redemptive.

Today, I find much more positive fruit in life-affirming interpretations of the Jesus narrative, like those from womanist theologian, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s power . . . is not a power that diminishes the life of another so that others might live. God’s power respects the integrity of all human bodies and the sanctity of life. This is resurrecting power” (p.178). In other words, God doesn’t overcome death and death-dealing through more death, but by giving life, resurrecting life—life that overcomes, reverses, and undoes everything accomplished in the killing of Jesus.

Also, science has something to teach us about this passage. Seeds that germinate haven’t died! Germination is not death, but transformation. When seeds die, they don’t germinate. They actually “abide alone” when they die. But if they germinate rather than die, they transform or “sprout” into a new form: a beautiful plant with the potential to propagate and create more potentially germinating seeds that continue to give life. Life on top of life on top of life on top of life.

As we shared a couple of weeks ago, in other versions of the Jesus story, Jesus died because he refused to keep silent in the face of injustice. The cross was not his silent bearing of injustice, but an unjust penalty imposed on him by unjust people in power who felt threatened by him and his public critique of their unjust system. In other words, Jesus doesn’t model the passive bearing of wrong. He models how to speak out against injustice even if you’re threatened with a cross for doing so.

I didn’t always teach this and I’m thankful for womanist and feminist scholars like those mentioned above who have brought these ideas to our attention. The way I used to interpret and teach the story of Jesus death’ has had devastating effects on the lives of abuse survivors and victims. Suffering is never redemptive. Standing up, speaking out, and saying “no” is redemptive, and glorifying people’s victimization can extend their bodily, emotional, and psychological pain. Victimization destroys a person’s self-worth, self-image, and dignity, robbing them of their sense of self-determining power, and theology that glorifies victimization rather than condemning or resisting it can also lead to death.

Life-giving interpretations of the Jesus story tell of a Jesus who doesn’t ask us if we are willing to suffer, but asks if we desire to fully live, to not let go of life, to not lay down, to not be passively silent when threatened for speaking out. Jesus did not come to die, nor did he choose the cross. He rather chose to live a life opposing unjust, oppressive and exploitative ways of organizing life in this world. Jesus chose not to remain silent; he chose to stand up in faithfulness to his life-giving God, and he refused to change course because of threat.

Jesus knew where his speaking out would lead. He knew what his solidarity with the excluded and exploited would cost him. And he chose to do it nonetheless. He refused to let go of life. He rejected the way of death, even while being threatened with death himself. In the words of Brown and Parker, choosing this interpretation, “is subtle and, to some, specious, but in the end it makes a great difference in how people interpret and respond to suffering.” (Christianity, Patriarchy and Abuse, p. 18)

Indeed, it makes all the difference in the world.

This week, let’s not ask ourselves how we can die. Jesus doesn’t call a person do die, but to live.

So what is it going to take for us to germinate?

HeartGroup Application

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

2. Share with your group examples of how you have witnessed the message of redemptive suffering bearing harmful fruit. How do you interpret the story of Jesus death and resurrection in life-giving, life-affirming ways?

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

Transparency and the Vilification of Darkness

night sky


“What the passage from John describes is the desire to avoid the light of justice for fear of harmful actions toward others being exposed, actions that benefit some at the expense of others. We read about some hiding in the shadows for fear of being discovered, maybe held accountable, and most definitely being stopped. It’s about them coopting the darkness, which is not inherently evil, and using the darkness not for the life giving purposes of which it is intended, but to hide so they can continue doing harm.”


Herb Montgomery | March 12, 2021

This week’s reading is from the gospel of John,

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (John 3:14-21)

The phrase in this passage that speaks most to me now is in verse 20: “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” This passage speaks to us of transparency versus hiding. Let’s unpack this a bit with an example from current events.

U.S. President Biden recently released an unclassified version of the National Intelligence report on the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist. The report finds Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved Khashoggi’s killing.

By contrast, the previous administration had refused to release this report. In the language of our passage this week, they had refused to let the report come to light because the deeds it exposed were deeply evil. Bob Woodward reports in his book Rage that Trump even bragged about protecting the Saudi prince. “I saved his ass,” Trump told Woodward, while many in the U.S. were calling for justice after Khashoggi’s murder. Trump continued, “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

This week’s passage from John’s gospel includes language that has been interpreted to blame Jewish people for Jesus’ death. I reject this anti-semitic interpretation. What the Jesus narrative does demonstrate is a universal dynamic of classism. The elite in Jesus’ society were threatened by his teachings, while most of the people loved his gospel to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

In Luke’s version of the Jesus story we read,

“When the scribes and chief priests realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people. (Luke 20:19, emphasis added, cf. Luke 4:18-19)

In much the same way, Miguel A. De La Torre writes, global elites today see liberation theology as a threat:

“I am amazed at the misinformation surrounding liberation theology . . . Why is this theological perspective deemed so dangerous? Why have governments, including that of the United States, committed so many resources to bring about its obliteration? . . . Liberation theology is so dangerous because it disrupts a religious and political worldview that supports social structures that privilege the few at the expense of the many. Ignorance of the causes of oppression is crucial to maintaining this worldview. But as the consciousness of the oppressed begins to be raised, as they begin to see with their own eyes that their repressive conditions are contrary to the will of God, the power and privilege of the few who benefit from the status quo is threatened.” (Miguel A. De La Torre, Liberation Theology for Armchair Theologians, Introduction)

In Jesus’ society it was not the people in general who rejected light for fear of being exposed, but, certain people, the elites, those in positions of power and privilege who “loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”

In my home state of West Virginia, we are now in the midst of our 2021 legislative session. The Republican party won a supermajority in both houses of the West Virginia legislature in last November’s election. Now an alarming trend is developing.

Over half a dozen bills moving through the halls of legislature either remove all requirements for public disclosure of meetings and information, or make agency information private and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. That’s not how government that claims to derive its power from the consent of those it represents should work. Government should be transparent. Everyone should be able to know what is being done, and be able to keep those who represent them accountable. It makes one wonder what is being hidden, what is being kept out of the light of public consciousness.

I want to offer a word of caution regarding the phrase in our passage about “loving darkness.”
The vilification of darkness in the gospels is problematic today. However innocent the original intent may have been of the gospel authors, equating darkness with evil has been a deep part of White supremacism. White supremacists have used Biblical passages to equate whiteness with goodness and superiority and blackness with evil or inferiority. Equating blackness with evil is how colonists imagined God and holiness as white and therefore, Black and Brown people as something else. This seed has borne deeply harmful and destructive fruit in the lives of all who are not White. (In different ways it has also damaged White people. One cannot advance supremacism and be unscathed.)

I’ve noticed that the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney uses the language of “gloom” or “shadow” instead of “darkness.” After all, there is nothing inherently evil about darkness and we need a balance of both light and darkness in our lives for health. The darkness of the womb is where we were all given life. Darkness is where we rest and heal, and some forms of life only grow in darkness. Again, it’s about balance: both light and darkness in a dance, so to speak, with neither overcoming the other. We can speak of the goodness of the light without vilifying darkness. Darkness calls us to the goodness of rest and recovery. Light calls us to wake and to get to work. We need both. (For more on this see Rev. Dr. Gafney’s Embracing the Light & the Darkness in the Age of Black Lives Matter and Dark and Light: Wil Gafney on White Supremacy in Biblical Interpretation)

What the passage from John describes is the desire to avoid the light of justice for fear of harmful actions toward others being exposed, actions that benefit some at the expense of others. We read about some hiding in the shadows for fear of being discovered, maybe held accountable, and most definitely being stopped. It’s about them coopting the darkness, which is not inherently evil, and using the darkness not for the life giving purposes of which it is intended, but to hide so they can continue doing harm.

A just society requires accountability, and accountability requires investigation. Those who have something to lose deeply fear investigation. Keep the tax returns hidden, they might say. Don’t set up a committee to investigate January 6, 2021, or broaden an investigation’s scope to dilute its power of discovery and make it more likely that some things stay hidden. Don’t release investigative reports, or at least don’t make them public. Watch for where you see those in positions of power and privilege seeking to keep their actions out of public consciousness in these ways.

In the Jesus story, Jesus emerged as a Galilean prophet of the poor, calling for life giving changes within his own society. He called for the redistribution of wealth, the inclusion of the marginalized, and the politics of compassion and protective justice toward those most vulnerable to being harmed by the then present system. For this reason, the powerful who were benefiting from the harm being done to others tried to hide. After all, when public consciousness is raised, change isn’t very far behind, and change is what those benefiting from the status quo most desperately want to stop.

In John’s story, the powerful elite succeed. Jesus is silenced through execution. Those with too much to lose interrupted his salvific work with a Roman cross, murdering him for earthly, political reasons, not cosmic theological ones. As we near the season of celebrating the resurrection across Christendom, we’ll discuss this further. For now, watch for where you see hiding and obfuscation. Don’t allow the shadows to be used for harm. Call for transparency, and affirm and support it wherever you see it being practiced.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. Share with the group a story from your own experience that teaches the value of transparency, either within secular society or faith communities.

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

Jesus and Protest

cartoon of protesters

Herb Montgomery | March 5, 2021

This week’s reading is John 2:13-22. I prefer Mark’s version of this story:

“On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching. (Mark 11:15-18)

Most scholars believe that out of the four canonical gospels we have today, Mark was written the earliest and John the latest. In the passage for this week, Mark’s author conflates and places in the mouth of Jesus two passages from the Hebrew scriptures, one from Isaiah and the other from Jeremiah:

“These I will bring to my holy mountain
and give them joy in my house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.” (Isaiah 56:7)

And:

“Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 7:11)

In Mark’s gospel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the capital building of the Temple state. The Temple state, centered in Jerusalem, was not a purely religious system as we think of Christian churches today: there was no separation of church and state in Jesus’ culture. The Temple state was a religious, political, social, and economic system that governed all aspects of Jewish society. It’s telling that in the revolt leading up to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 C.E., when the rebels took over the temple, the scene was not like a church or a synagogue, but rather a banking institution. The rebels found the debt records for the poor and burned them. In one sense, it was a religious act for those who considered faithfulness to the Jubilee [debt cancellation] of the Torah to be faithfulness to the God of the Torah. But it was also an economic and political act too.

By the time John’s gospel was written, the story of Jesus and the Temple has evolved. It has become concerned not with a system that exploits the poor but with one that defiles religious space. The writer’s emphasis is not on the Temple as a building at the center of a system that perpetuates poverty, but on the Temple as a symbol for Jesus’ body which would be crucified and then resurrected (John 2:14, 19-20).

I understand why so many people have focused on John’s version of the story recently. Many Christians have begun their stride toward the Easter holiday and its focus on the death and resurrection of the Christ. I find Mark’s political and economic emphasis on the systemic exploitation of the poor much more helpful at this time in the U.S., however.

It’s important to connect the context of Jesus’ temple protest in Mark with his other acts and statements that day:

“As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.” (Mark 12:38-40)

Jesus’ concern here is the economic exploitation of the most vulnerable: how widows are being forced into poverty. He is not concerned that something is being done incorrectly in the temple’s worship system.

Mark continues:

“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

This statement is not praise for the widow as so many Christians interpret it today. No, Jesus is critiquing a system that leaves widows with nothing left to live on!

This story ends with:

“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 12:41-13.2)

In Mark, Jesus is not speaking about his own death and resurrection as he is in John. He is speaking about how exploitative systems are not sustainable and will eventually crumble under the weight of their own injustice.
The present economic system of consumption and massive profit at others’ expense is unsustainable ecologically. Jeff Bezos has once again become the richest person in the world, with a net worth of $191.2 billion in the midst of a pandemic with an economic displacement worse than during the Great Depression. I think, too, of President Biden’s reluctance to cancel student debt even though it was one of his campaign pledges. But what stands out to me most is how immigration in the U.S. has been handled over the last four years and I hope that the next four will bring desperately needed change.

The U.S. immigration system has a long racist history. Rather than America becoming a multiracial democracy, its immigration system is designed to keep it as a country where White people are still the majority and where those White lives matter more than the lives of those who are not White. (For a detailed, yet easy to understand recounting of the racial history of immigration in the U.S. see Kelly Brown Douglass’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.)

Over the past four years, for example, we have seen the immoral crime of the U.S. terrorizing families by ripping children away from their parents just because they sought asylum here. Words from Emma Lazarus’s famous 1883 sonnet “The New Colossus”—“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—have been eclipsed by White nationalism and White supremacy. If ever there were a setting in which Jesus followers should follow Jesus in flipping the tables of a system that was irreparably harming those who were already vulnerable, family separation was it. Some Christians actually did respond. But not many.

I’m thankful to see the Biden administration moving toward change on this issue. I’m thankful to see it using more inclusive language, such as “noncitizens” and “undocumented noncitizen” instead of “alien” or “illegal alien,” referring to the “integration” of immigrants into society instead of their “assimilation,” and abandoning language that dehumanized immigrants or was racist.

This is undoubtedly a step toward a welcoming America. And while I’m thankful for these beginnings, I want to see more than linguistic changes, too. It’s going to take real policy change, real action to turn around the Trump administration’s hostile stance and inhuman response to immigrants. We have a chance to do something fundamentally different. My hope is that we transition away from the immigration policies of the past that endeavored to protect Whiteness, and instead take genuine steps to affirm the future of America as a multiracial democracy where every voice matters and everyone, regardless of race, religion, net worth, ability, gender, orientation, or gender expression can have a seat at the table. I know these changes don’t ever happen fast enough, and we have the potential at this moment to leap forward.

My favorite part of Mark’s story this week is actually found in Mark 11:

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” (Mark 11:11)

Jesus’ temple protest was supposed happen the first day Jesus entered Jerusalem, but by the time he arrived at the temple courtyard, it was too late in the day and there were not enough people in the temple courtyard for his protest to make much of a difference. So Mark states he goes back to Bethany with his disciples, spends the night, and comes back the following day.

This makes me wonder about the effectiveness of our own protest. When we do protest, how do we make it matter? How do we make it count?

Again, change for those being harmed never happens fast enough. But in each of our circles of influence we have today and all the potential for change today brings. Each day we still can move a more just, safe, compassionate, inclusive future closer.

Let’s do it.

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. Share three characteristics you feel a protest must possess in order to be effective in our social climate, today.

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

Gaining the World, Losing One’s Humanity

man alone on beach

Herb Montgomery | February 26, 2021

In Mark’s gospel we read,

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ he said. ‘You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’ Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:31-38)

Those controlling an unjust status quo have always used violence to force the silence of those who call for distributively just change and equitable transformation of society. In Jesus’ society, Rome maintained social “peace” by terrorizing inhabitants with the threat of a militarized, heavy handed backlash if any group disrupted the smooth functioning of the Pax Romana.

That is the political or social context in which we must understand the above passage. Jesus was facing two options: remain silent and avoid Rome’s violent response, i.e. crucifixion, or stand in the tradition of past Hebrew prophets and speak his truth to the unjust, exploitative, clients of Rome controlling the temple state. With this context, we can most safely reclaim and understand the “must” language of the passage we read today.

As Jesus saw vulnerable people in his society being harmed, he could not remain silent without losing hold, to some degree, of his own humanity. He must speak out. And speak out he did in the temple courtyard through both rhetoric and flipping the moneychangers’ tables. It is the must that must hold priority in our understanding. The reason Jesus “must suffer” the political consequences of speaking out was that he could not remain silent. I imagine he could not picture any other way. This to me speaks of his courage: he knows the cost of his upcoming temple protest, and he chooses to speak out anyway.

This gives us insight into life-giving ways to interpret the language of “taking up the cross and following” Jesus. Interpreting the cross as self-sacrifice that Jesus modeled and that we must follow too has borne destructive, harmful fruit in multiple vulnerable communities, especially women in Christian circles. In these circles, taking up one’s cross has come to mean remaining silent: Be like Jesus. Take up your cross. Just silently bear the injustice you are suffering. But this is not at all what we see Jesus doing in the story.

In the story, Jesus is refusing to be silent and bear suffering. He is speaking out, despite knowing that a cross may very well be the backlash he receives for doing so. I do not believe that Jesus would have taught the oppressed, whose lives and selves were already being sacrificed by those in power and whose humanity was already being denied, to choose self-sacrifice and denial of their humanity. Jesus instead gave them a way to affirm their humanity, worth, and value; to stand up and speak out, even in the face of the threat of death.

The other phrase in this passage that speaks to me at this moment in American society is “What does it profit a person if they gain the world but lose their self.” At the time of this writing, I was watching the second impeachment trial of former president Donald Trump. Over the last four years, every time I have thought that this is the moment Republican lawmakers will wake from their spell, break from their path, and do what’s right, they have instead sunk to lower depths. But my concern is not partisan politics. My concern is humanity. One party has dug in and placed their own political, re-election aspirations over and against the common good, the good of the country, basic humanity including their own, and even against democracy itself.

Ultimately, Republican Senators voted not to convict the former president, despite how much evidence piled up over. They mis-judged that their own futures would be better if they just buried their heads in the sand . Yet what’s at stake is larger than democracy. As Jesus called his followers, we’re called to find and reclaim our humanity. To Republicans who have kept following Trump down paths that none of them should have followed, this is the moment to turn around. What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and yet, in doing so, lose their souls?

My heart hurts as I watch the resoluteness of so many refusing to do what is right. In the spirt of our passage from Mark on doing what is right even if one is threatened with a cross, I was moved by two significant moments from the impeachment trial. The first moment was Chaplain Barry Black’s reference in his prayer at beginning of the trial to a hymn that was my favorite when I was a teenager, Once to Every Man and Nation. Second was Representative Jamie Raskin’s adaptation of Thomas Paine’s words in The Crisis at the very end of the prosecution’s case. I’ll end this article this week with both quotes:

“Once to ev’ry man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side.” —James Russell Lowell

“These are the times that try men and women’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will shrink at this moment from the service of their cause and their country; but everyone who stands with us now, will win the love and the favor and affection of every man and every woman for all time. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; but we have this saving consolation: the more difficult the struggle, the more glorious in the end will be our victory.” —Thomas Paine

HeartGroup Application

We at RHM are continuing to ask all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and practice physical distancing. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others, wear a mask, and continue to wash your hands to stop the spread of the virus.

This is also a time where we can practice the resource-sharing and mutual aid found in the gospels. Make sure the others in your group have what they need. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us.

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

2. Have you ever had to make a decision between staying silent and speaking out? Share your experience and any possible lessons learned 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