Those Things Which Are Eternal


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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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


hands held in community

Herb Montgomery | July 30, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John.

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

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

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

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

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

Let me offer some examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does that mean for you?

What decisions have you made in your own journey?

What have they cost you?

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Enough for Everyone

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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


steeple

Herb Montgomery | July 23, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of John:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

logo

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

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

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

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

You can donate online by clicking here.

Or you can make a donation by mail at:

Renewed Heart Ministries
PO Box 1211
Lewisburg, WV 24901

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


sunrise through grass

Ticket to Heaven or Concrete, Earthly Liberation

Herb Montgomery | July 16, 2021


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everyone will sit under their own vine

and under their own fig tree,

and no one will make them afraid,

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Speaking Truth to Those in Power

sculpture on capitol building

Herb Montgomery | July 9, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

 


 

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A Community of Dependence and Connectedness

diverse hands forming network

Herb Montgomery | July 2, 2021


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


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Mark:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is born when we share.

HeartGroup Application

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

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

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

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

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

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week


A Different Kind of Messiah

Herb Montgomery | May 29, 2020

Appalachian mountains


“Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.”


In Luke, Jesus is asked when the kingdom of God was coming. He answers:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [plural].” Then he said to the disciples, ‘The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.” (Luke 17:20-37)

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is warning his society about certain paths toward liberation given the violent retribution that Rome responded to uprisings with.

I believe that Jesus taught liberation, but what is clear is that he is balancing that desire with the desire for survival, too. Womanist scholars introduced me to this tension between liberation and survival, and I see it in Luke’s version of the Jesus story.

Jesus provides an alternative to liberation attempts that create devastation in verses 20-21:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

Kingdom rhetoric is problematic for us today given both its non-democratic and patriarchal nature. I have struggled over the years to find other language for the gospel’s use of the term “kingdom.” I know it had meaning for the original audience of the gospels. What language might we use today? I like the language I’ve heard Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas use: “God’s just future.” God’s just future is societal justice and distributive justice. It’s a vision for a distributively just society, a way of orienting society after the golden rule.

The proclamation of God’s just future and the seeds for that future being present with us right now: that was Jesus’ gospel! It is the centerpiece of each synoptic Jesus story (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), especially Luke’s gospel.

Pervading each step through Luke’s version is this announcement of the kingdom or God’s just future:

“Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Luke 8:1)

“And he sent them out to proclaim THE KINGDOM OF GOD and to heal.” (Luke 9:2)

“Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘THE KINGDOM OF GOD has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:8-9)

In our original passage, the disciples are challenging Jesus as a “prophet” to present his “revolutionary vision,” to explain what his vision of a liberated society is. In response, Luke’s Jesus contrasts his approach with other liberation theories current at the time Luke’s gospel was written, and he issues a warning.

I’ve written on the problems of privatizing and individualizing Jesus’ response to the disciples before.

Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you,” had a social context. The 1st Century historian Josephus gives us a window into Jesus’ words, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” Josephus writes around 50 C.E. when revolutionary prophets led large groups of people into the desert under the pretense that, once there, God would show them signs of approaching freedom. During these incidents, the Roman procurator, Felix, viewed this as the first stage of revolt and sent cavalry and heavy infantry to cut the groups into pieces (see Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson, and Smallwood, p. 147).

The most infamous of the revolutionary prophets who promised “signs to be observed” was a militaristic messiah referred to as “the Egyptian,” who is also mentioned in Acts 21:38: “Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”

Josephus describes the event as follows:

“Arriving in the country, this man, a fraud who posed as a seer, collected about 30,000 dupes, led them round from the desert to the Mount of Olives and from there was ready to force an entry into Jerusalem, overwhelm the Roman garrison, and seize supreme power with his fellow-raiders as bodyguard.” (Josephus, The Jewish War, Williamson and Smallwood, p. 147)

In a parallel account of this event, Josephus includes the “sign” that this “Egyptian” had claimed would be shown to the people in the course of their liberatory uprising: a sign like Joshua’s sign at the Battle of Jericho. At the “Egyptian’s” command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down so that his followers could enter and seize the city. However, before any such a sign could be attempted, the Roman cavalry and infantry slew and captured hundreds and put the rest to flight, including the militaristic messiah himself (Josephus, Antiquities, 170-172).

These leaders were not lunatics but hopeful messiah figures, action prophets who contemporary scholars now see as attempting to lead movements of Jewish peasants to exert human efforts that would be accompanied by divine acts of empowerment and deliverance. Their logic went something like, “Success is dependent on combining human effort with divine power.” If they wanted divine deliverance, they must first present a violent human effort for Yahweh to bless, and God would meet their efforts if they acted.

The rhetoric of these militaristic messiahs was steeped in the symbols of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan. Today, this is called sign propaganda. When a contemporary politician uses symbols of the American Revolution to inspire a following, they are doing the same. A much darker example is when White supremacists wave the Confederate flag when then they protest or rally. The militaristic messiahs of the mid-1st Century in Jerusalem used this technique of employing symbols from their own past to win over sectors of their populace that wanted liberation from Rome.

Josephus also describes another event where Romans massacred a thousand Jewish women and children obeying another Jewish militaristic messiah “prophet.” This leader had told the people in Jerusalem that God had commanded them to receive the signs of deliverance in the Temple (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 360). Elsewhere, Josephus describes a “Samaritan prophet” who was a contemporary “messiah” of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate. This Samaritan prophet’s “sign” was to lead the people up the sacred Mount Gerizim to find holy vessels left there by Moses. Instead, Pilate’s troops attacked and overwhelmed the armed crowd at the foot of the mountain (Josephus, Antiquities, 85-87).

So when Jesus says “The Kingdom is not coming with signs to be observed,” Luke is emphatically rejecting these popular methods of leading masses of Jewish poor people to die when Roman soldiers retaliated. He warns specifically, “They will say to you, ‘Lo there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them” (Luke 17:23). Those who followed these would-be messiahs would perish needlessly in horrific slaughters.

Today, there is a breaking point once again. Those most deeply impacted by the injustice inherent in our present system face injustice amplified and aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Can Jesus’ warnings offer us anything as we work toward building the kind of world we want to live in? We often use the language at RHM of building a world that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for everyone. I also like the language Ashlee Woodard Henderson, co-director of the Highland Center in Tennessee, used to sign off on a Facebook post: “Sweet dreams of revolutionary change, a world where everyone has what they need, and no harm exists for any of us.”

That’s what we need right now. That’s the kind of world I want to be building. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, where everyone has when they need, not just to survive but to thrive, and no systemic harm exists for anyone.

We’ll discuss the last part of Jesus’ warning in our passage next.

Jesus warns, “The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it.” Following would-be messiah figures might have seemed right to them at the time, but they would lead to death, not liberation (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25). The “son of man” reference here, I believe, points to the liberation work in the Hebrew apocalyptic writings of Daniel 7. In Daniel, the beast-like oppressive world empires are contrasted with the work of the humanizing messiah (“son of humanity”) who makes real God’s just future for the people. Luke’s Jesus is here saying that in following common messiah figures you may long for the fulfillment of expectations around Daniel’s “son of man,” but you will not see it and the end will not be as you hope.

Again, it’s easy for Luke’s gospel, which was written after the occurrence of the events in 70 C.E., to connect these dots for its audience. It would have been harder for those caught up in the moment/movement to foresee that outcome at the time.

In our passage, Jesus states that the son of man, or expectations of the liberation described in Daniel 7, would appear in a more obvious manner, as lightning streaming across the sky from east to west. This would not be a conspiracy or a movement where only a select few perceived what is happening. It would be more noticeable, much more.

During our stay home/safer at home executive orders here in WV, I’ve been reading Gary Dorrien’s Social Democracy in the Making: Political & Religious Roots of European Socialism. The part that most recently spoke to me was about how theologian Karl Barth forbade students from bringing politics into his lectures and classroom discussions during the rise of Nazi-ism in Germany. He dangerously believed doctrine could be separated from politics and failed to understand that all theology is political, either in the side it takes outspokenly or the side it takes in its silence.

Barth, at a time when his voice could have done valuable good, instead believed that Nazi ideology “was too absurd to take seriously, and he respected Germans too much to believe they would fall for it” (Dorrien, p. 259). Barth did not take into account how desperate things had become for the German people in the wake of the Versailles Treaty. And desperate communities are far more dangerous than desperate individuals.

That struck me deeply and reminded me of my own feelings during the last U.S. election. I thought Trump was too absurd to take seriously. I mistakenly believed too much in many of my own Appalachian friends and neighbors, thinking they would not fall for Trump. Many in these hills who voted for Trump in 2016 now find that his failures to respond adequately to this pandemic has finally pushed them over the line. They, too, now say he is dangerous. I also know far too many whose opinion has not changed and who are planning to vote for him again.

In Times Square in New York City, a 56-foot billboard called the Trump Death Clock now hangs. The brain-child of Eugene Jarecki, it shows a very conservative estimate of the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths that have resulted from the president and his team’s failed response to the coronavirus outbreak. According to Dr. Fauci and leading epidemiologists, if mitigation guidelines had been put into effect just one week earlier, on March 9 instead of March 16, 60% of U.S. COVID-19 deaths would have been prevented. During that time, Trump, Fox News, and other right-wing commentators like Rush Limbaugh were still downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic.

Jarecki has received criticism of his billboard from both the left and the right: criticism from the right for obvious reasons, and from those on the left who believe his numbers are much lower than they should be. Jarecki has erected the Trump Death Clock on behalf of all those who’ve died because of failed leadership in a pandemic. It stands as a symbol, not only for accountability but also for more responsible and responsive stewardship going forward.

Our passage this week and this pandemic make me think of my working-class Appalachian friends, family, and neighbors—forgotten by the establishment or marginalized by the elite class as dumb mountain people. These forgotten people were particularly vulnerable to seeing in Trump a messiah figure. But that vision is lethal for all marginalized communities, even their own.

“The days are coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. They will say to you, ‘Look there!’ or ‘Look here!’ Do not go, do not set off in pursuit.” (Luke 17:20-37)

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. How many ways can you take care of each other while we are physically apart?

  1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.
  2. How is all theology political? Please discuss this with your group. What is our political responsibility presently as followers of Jesus?
  3. What is currently taking place in your own life right now? 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 all? Discuss with your group and pick something from the discussion to do this upcoming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well. Stay safe.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

Building the World We Want to Live In


“Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.”


In Luke’s gospel, we read,

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” —Jesus (Luke 13:34-35)

Christians have long interpreted this week’s passage in deeply antisemitic. But this passage is not a critique of Judaism or Jewish people. It explicitly refers to a “city.” It is a civic critique, not a religious one.

There was no such thing as a separation of “church” and “state” when this passage was written. But Jesus is not complaining about Judaism, his own religion. His complaint is about the power brokers, economic elites, and those privileged in the temple-state based in Jerusalem who resisted his distributive justice teachings as well as those in the Torah and from the Hebrew prophets. The text is not anti-Jewish. It’s opposed to the exploitation of the poor.

Jesus himself was a Jew. He was never a Christian. And although Luke’s gospel was written by Christians, we do not have to interpret this passage in an anti-Jewish way. Jesus was one of many voices within Judaism calling for a return to the economic justice teachings of the Torah (see Deuteronomy 15). Any society, Jewish or not, produces tension when systemic injustice is designed to benefit a few at the top of society at the expense of the masses on the margins and undersides of that society. The passage could today just as easily say “America, America, the country that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”

This is a passage that implies repentance. The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah suggests “turning”—a turning from one path to an alternative. Jesus was calling those in control of his own society to repent, to turn from their economic violence against the poor toward a path of distributive justice. The verb form of teshuvah is shuv, which means to return. Originally it suggested returning to God from exile,” to go from the place of alienation and separation back to God. It meant a return from the path of destruction and the way of violence to God and God’s path of life, the way of peace. In Jesus’ world, it would mean returning to the Torah’s economic teachings. The rich were to be taxed and their taxes and gains distributed back to the poor. Debts were to be canceled, and poverty eliminated.

“At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. At the end of every seven years you must cancel debts. This is how it is to be done: Every creditor shall cancel any loan they have made to a fellow Israelite. They shall not require payment from anyone among their own people, because the LORD’S time for canceling debts has been proclaimed. You may require payment from a foreigner, but you must cancel any debt your fellow Israelite owes you. However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today.” (Deuteronomy 14:28-15:5, emphasis added)

Repenting, in the Jesus story, meant leaving the path of economic exploitation and “returning” to a path toward a world where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough.

Today, capitalism has a long history of straining its inherent contradictions to the breaking point and causing a social and economic crisis. Could we be on the edge of another such moment now in the U.S. as a result of the response to the current pandemic? We have more people in the U.S. unemployed than we had during the Great Depression. What might Jesus’ economic teachings offer us right now?

Gather Your Children Together

Like the Hebrew prophets of the poor, Luke’s Jesus confronts the state’s exploitation of the poor (see Luke 20:47; 21:2) with imagery that expresses the call for justice. The image in Luke is that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings in the presence of a predator. This image could represent Jesus’ desire to protect the poor from the predatory economic practices in his society. By the late 60s CE, the poor of Judea had had enough of their exploitation and they rose up. They overtook the temple state in Jerusalem, burned the debt records, and then expanded their uprising to oppose Roman oppression as well. The Jewish-Roman war, which ended in 69 C.E., did not end well. Rome responded to the uprising by razing the Jerusalem temple to the ground in 70 C.E. The only response more excessive in the Judean province was Rome’s response to the Bar Kokhba revolt (132-136 C.E.) when Rome genocidally depopulated Judean communities in that region and forbade surviving Jews from ever entering Jerusalem again.

How fitting that Jesus would take up the image of a mother hen covering her baby chicks with her wings, protecting them from the circling predatory eagle in the sky above. It was a very fitting description: Rome’s symbol was the eagle.

Today, many of us are seeing our society being pushed to yet another breaking point. Blessed are the ones calling for change now. Blessed are the ones modeling a compassionate new world. Blessed are the ones shaping a world that is just and safe for all, inclusive of those vulnerable now. Blessed are the ones pointing the way to healing, personal and private as well as public and systemic.

I recently learned of a youth-led campaign here in West Virginia in response to the pandemic. The Youth Mutual Aid Fund is a partnership between the Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project (The STAY Project) and The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition (KSEC). West Virginian and Appalachian communities have a long history of pulling together to support one another during tough times. As someone who sees mutual aid as a central teaching in the Jesus stories, the Youth Mutual Aid Fund immediately caught my attention. One of their catch phases is. “Modeling the new world, building the world we want to live in.”

How can we model the new world? How do you want to begin building the kind of world you want to live in?

Disproportionate Impact

I learned about what STAY and KSEC were doing the same day I read about how “COVID-19 tore through a black Baptist church community in WV. Nobody said a word about it.” It cannot be stated enough that although we are all affected by this pandemic we are not all affected equally. COVID-19 is amplifying already present injustices in our social system. An economic system that plunges some communities into ways of surviving and working that make them vulnerable to certain diseases only makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. This pandemic is disproportionally impacting Black communities and communities of color.

We can, and must do better.

The phrase in our above passage, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” can take on new significance in our context.

Will the power brokers and economic elites be any more open to more equity as we witness a massive loss of life? Or will we keep capitalism going at the cost of human life? All human life is precious. On the one hand, we have a massive loss of life because of the virus. On the other, we have a massive loss of life because of our fragile economic system. Millions are unemployed and hungry. There must be another path!

Will those who have long benefitted from the present system be any more open to structural, systemic changes today than they have been in the past? Again, that phrase haunts me, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.”

I see so many helpers right now. I also see structural, systemic inequities that need to be changed. What are you seeing? Again, how can you, this coming week, model the new world? How do you want to begin building the world you want to live in?

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others 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. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

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

2. What could the economic teachings of the Torah and the Gospels about debt forgiveness and wealth tithe (wealth tax) and redistribution to the poor and migrant communities look like if they were to be applied in our society presently during this pandemic?

3. This week, The Poor People’s Campaign launched the “Stay in Place Stay Alive, Organize, and Don’t Believe the Lies!” campaign. The term “essential workers” is evolving into meaning expendable workers. You can find out more and how you, too, can participate here. As part of this campaign, Faith leaders, faith communities, houses of worship are being called to help remember and honor the precious lives that we have lost and will continue to lose during this pandemic. To find out how your HeartGroup can participate, click #TollingTogether. This coming week, how can you as a group begin building the world you want to live in?

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

Growth For Growth’s Sake

Herb Montgomery | May 15, 2020

city scape


“The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“At that very time, there were some present that told him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, ‘Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. Then he told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)

As we discussed in A Gospel for the Earth, Jesus had called the elites in his audience to make reparations to exploited and marginalized people in their society before the response to their exploitation escalated out of control (see Luke 12:58). In our passage today, some in his audience respond by raising Pilate’s slaying Galilean rebels. Did they bring up this incident as a rebuttal to Jesus’ call for reparations in a society on the verge of rebellion?

Rome very carefully watched when any of its subservient people congregated, but it especially watched those with subversive tendencies leaning toward revolt. The Galilean Jews certainly fit this description. Being exploited nationally by Rome and economically by Jewish elites cooperating with Rome left some on the edge of rebellion, ready to throw off the yoke of Roman oppression by any means necessary. One of the ways the elite responded was to accuse the exploited rebels who hungered and thirsted for things to be put right (see Matthew 5:6) of being “sinners” getting what they deserved. Jesus called them blessed.

The elites were victim-blaming. The oppressed class’s failure to put things right was not because they lacked moral uprightness. It was the result of an almost insurmountably heavy system that had been designed to work against them, violently if need be.

As we all respond to COVID-19 now, where do you see injustices in our society being laid bare, amplified, and pushed to a breaking point? Are you seeing those most vulnerable being blamed today? Who is defending the system now? Who is calling repeatedly for change?

There are some parallels between Jesus’ context and our own economic and political breaking point. The story in Luke invites us to ask: how can we stand in solidarity with vulnerable people who are hungering for things to be put right, right now?

Most scholars agree that in the Galilean revolt referred to in Luke 13, Roman soldiers must have surprised Galilean insurgents while the rebels were sacrificing in preparation for their revolt. The Roman soldiers slaughtered the Galileans right then and there, and the religiopolitical elite responded by questioning whether the people revolting had been morally upright. Jesus replied:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”

He goes on to say:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Then Jesus responds to these objectors with a second occurrence everyone was talking about during that time:

“Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?”

According to some sources, the tower of Siloam was a tower that Rome used for weapons storage. A group of Zealot insurgents had tried to dig a tunnel under the tower, hoping to seize the weapons stored there and use them in a violent revolt against the Romans. But the tower’s foundation was already decaying, and the Zealots’ tunnel further compromised the integrity of the foundation. The entire construction suddenly collapsed and claimed the lives of several Galileans.

Jesus said again:

“No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

In Jesus’ calls for repentance, I don’t hear the evangelical, moralistic idea of repentance so many of us are used to today. I hear a Jewish prophet of the poor calling for a change in society so that the poor and indebted are not further exploited, but could experience the distributive justice called for by the Hebrew prophetic tradition (see the book of Amos).

Luke’s gospel was written long after Jerusalem’s catastrophic crisis in 70 C.E. Yet in that gospel, Jesus warns that if the people did not change their society’s path, inequities would continue to escalate until their society imploded and all would be destroyed together. Because it was written after the fact, Luke’s gospel can connect these dots for its audience.

Jesus then finishes this warning with a story. Please read this story prayerfully, remembering the social and political context in which Jesus told it:

“Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”’”

The system of exploitation of the masses for the benefit of a few was set on a collision course with annihilation if something didn’t change. What was the fruit the gardener looked for that would ensure it remains?

I believe it was a more distributively just shaping of society, where the rain fell and the sun shone on all equitably (see Matthew 5:45).

What does this mean for us today?

The contradictions of our present economic system are being exposed more every passing day. The exploitations built into our present system are straining in this pandemic. A system with such a long history of placing profit above people and planet cannot easily pivot now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society.

Our food distribution chain is breaking down.

People have lost their income.

They can’t afford to feed their families.

Those who were barely surviving already now can’t pay their rent and/or mortgages.

The solution here in the U.S. so far has been to plunge those in need further into debt. Bailouts for people in the U.S. are very different than those other countries are offering to their citizens. States’ are also quickly running out of money.

The immigrant population here is especially vulnerable during all of this, and our present food chain depends on them.

The for-profit-health system is also at a breaking point, and healthcare professionals now have to place their own lives at risk.

Nonprofits that typically provide charity are also feeling the strain as they operate at significantly lower income levels than they usually do.

It’s time to dream of and work toward a system the places people over profit. Imagine the world we could create if Jesus followers insisted on following Jesus’ clear call to distributive justice.

In Luke’s gospel, the fig tree continued to grow but did not produce any life-giving fruit.

Growth for growth’s sake in capitalist economics is called profit. It’s good for business. But on a cellular level in biology, it’s called cancer.

It’s not good for creatures or for the planet. And it’s not good for those at the bottom and edges of our present economic system. It was once named a recipe for potential disaster, and today it’s proving to be just that.

In our passage, the fig tree won’t be allowed to continue to grow exponentially or indefinitely without providing fruit for the sustenance and life of those around it.

What can this say to us right now during this crisis about our own systems?

Our present system is not working. It’s not simply not working and for those our present system deems “the least of these,” it’s doing immeasurable harm.

I want to believe that another world is possible.

If it is, we will have to choose it.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others 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. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time. This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

  1. How have Jesus’ social teachings spoken to you during our present pandemic? Share with your group.
  2. Our present system with its long history of placing profit above people and planet is not pivoting well now to prioritizing people, especially not the most vulnerable people in our society. What is the parable of the fig tree saying to you in this context this week? Share with your group.
  3. Thinking of those most impacted in our society by our present pandemic, a statement by Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has been on my heart. In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, writes, “God’s justice means a restoration of the dignity of all people. This begins with the crucified class of people . . . God’s peace thus requires a radical restructuring of a political, social and economic order that is sustained by and thus creates ‘crucified classes of people.’” (p. 200) This week, how can we work toward a world where crucified classes of people no longer exist. Brainstorm with your group. Then pick something from what you come up with and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week

A Gospel for the Earth

by Herb Montgomery | May 8, 2020

sprout


“What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?”


In Luke’s gospel we read:

“When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain, ’and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot, ’and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” —Jesus (Luke 12:54-56)

The weather-wise members of Jesus’s community could tell the weather by watching the clouds over the Mediterranean or by observing the wind changing direction, and they planned accordingly.

Here, Jesus is drawing attention to their ability to reason from cause to effect when it came to matters of weather, but their inability to do so when it came to their economic, political, and social trajectory.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus continues:

“As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled on the way, or your adversary may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison. I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59)

I have to confess that I have always struggled with this saying. I found it disjointed and out of place until I eventually realized its social and economic context. Jesus is talking about settling disputes and not allowing them to escalate out of control.

In Jesus’ society, the disparity and inequality between the haves and the have-nots were growing. We know that by the time the gospels were written, the poor people’s revolt of the late 60s had escalated until they overtook the Jewish temple-state in Jerusalem. From there, their conflict with the elite ruling class continued to escalate into the war with Rome itself (the Jewish-Roman war 66-69 CE), which ultimately and eventually resulted in Jerusalem being razed to the ground by Rome in 70 CE.

If ever there were a warning for privileged elites to make restitution to the masses at whose expense they had accumulated their wealth and power, this is a textbook example. In Jesus’ lifetime, a struggle was brewing, and by the time the gospels were written, that struggle had escalated into insurrection, war, and heartbreaking destruction.

Today, there is a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots again. (Read From Private Helicopters To Concierge Doctors, Inequality Is A ‘Big Business’.) Experts, whether researchers or people who know how to scratch out an existence are worried about the disappearance of the middle class, which can be traced back to the economic and political policies of the 80s and has been escalating continually since.

Jesus’ gospel was good news to the poor (Luke 4:18). What would it mean today for us to seek a path of equity, redistribution, and/or reparations rather than continue on our present path despite where it leads?

A Gospel for the Earth

Many of us recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day here in the U.S. Environmentalism has come a long way in the last fifty years, and so has the damage to our environment.

Earth’s temperatures are higher. Our ocean chemistry has changed. More animals have gone extinct. Significant portions of Amazonian rain forests and the Great Barrier reef that we need for our survival are now lost.

We are also moving in the wrong direction with the current U.S. Administration scaling back essential environmental protections. I live in West Virginia where various industries, including coal, have caused significant damage to both our environment and our economy. We have repeatedly dealt with polluted water supplies, disappearing landscapes, and one of the worst unemployment rates in the country in areas that used to have the largest concentration of millionaires in the U.S. because of the coal mining boom and bust. One more injustice that this COVID-19 pandemic has also laid bare is the daily damage to our planet from our global, consumer, capitalist system. The images are stark in the recent Richmond Times Dispatch article, “As people stay home, Earth turns wilder and cleaner. These before-and-after images show the change.” Check out the pictures of New Delhi’s skyline. Wow.

The Hebrew scriptures include a strong case for our duty as stewards of the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). The earth is not here for us to exploit. We are in a symbiotic relationship with it. If we do not take care of it, it will cease to be home for us.

Christianity has a long and complicated history when it comes to environmentalism. Much of this history can be read in Brock and Parker’s Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. Another book I recommend on the environmental and other impacts of our present economic and political system is A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things by Patel and Moore. Both books have been on RHM’s recommended reading lists.

What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today?

Let’s read the passage again from Matthew’s sermon on the mount:

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)

This says to me that it is better to deal with things now, at this stage, than to deal with them later. Change is coming and there’s no way around it. Change that we choose today is always preferable to change that our environment forces upon us tomorrow. We can begin building a better world today. (Read Bill McKibben‘s article in The New Yorker How We Can Build a Hardier World After the Coronavirus.)

I’m encouraged to see signs that the financial industries are beginning to divest from their fossil fuel portfolios. I’m also alarmed at talk of bailing out industries we need to begin transitioning away from. We should instead be training workers dependent on fossil fuel industries to work in greener industries.

What causes and effects are you seeing in the present system? What changes would you like to see? Another world is possible if we collectively choose it.

Settle Matters Quickly

Matthew’s account (Matthew 5:25-26) is part of a section on leaving your gift at the altar when offering a sacrifice if you remember that you have an adversary. Jesus commands, “First go and be reconciled to that person; then come and offer your gift.” Twice in Matthew, Jesus is recorded as saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13; 12:7; cf. Hosea 6:6) This is the path that leads to life.

In all three of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) we see Jesus calling for a change of direction, a change of action, a transition to a different social path than the one his listeners were on, and quickly! Things were escalating in his own society politically and economically, as the second half of the 1st Century in Galilee and Judea revealed.

For those paying attention today, things are escalating quickly for us, too. Jesus’ audience was faced with alternative paths and trajectories. If things did not change, if the elites did not begin listening to the exploited and marginalized, Jesus’ society would “not get out until they had paid the last penny.”

The path before them was transformation. But I do not believe that what happened to 1st Century Judaea was annihilation forced on the people by a violent God. Rather it was the intrinsic, natural result of a course of action that we have repeatedly seen through history when the haves ignore the cries of the have-nots who are barely surviving.

Luke’s Jesus laments:

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.” (Luke 19:42)

Today we plan our daily activities around listening to weather forecasts or checking our weather apps on our phones while being strangely ignorant of the clouds of our own making that are gathering on the horizon of our lives. The Jesus story is whispering to us today to take a different social and global path. Some ways seem right to those in positions of power and privilege, but their end is death (Proverbs 14:12 cf. Matthew 7:13-14).

What would happen if, instead of spending trillions of dollars supporting a military-industrial complex, we began spending trillions on feeding the world’s starving? What if we began spending trillions on repairing our earth? What if we spent trillions transitioning from unsustainable ways of living on our planet toward sustainable ways of surviving and thriving? What would happen if Christians stopped believing that Jesus’s way is impractical, naïve, insufficient, or “doesn’t work in the “real world” and began to follow the way of life Jesus came to teach us, no matter how initially difficult it is? What would happen if Christians simply began believing in Jesus once again?

The Jesus story found in the gospels is still whispering to Christians today. He asks us to settle these matters quickly. The end result will be much better, both in the short and long term.

HeartGroup Application

We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others 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. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this pandemic has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?

1. Is environmentalism a part of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus? Share with your group why?

2. What does it mean for you to settle matters now rather than later in your own personal lives? What could it mean systemically for our society as a whole right now during our current pandemic? Share with the group.

3. What might Jesus’ statement about the cause and effect of the weather and correctly reading the times be saying about our social, political, economic, environmental, and even religious causes and effects today? Discuss with your group.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.

A More Distributively Just Way

by Herb Montgomery | May 1, 2020

workers


“The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.”


Happy International Worker’s Day!

Every community has its own way of relating to the rejection of leaders in whom they see hope for the future wellbeing of their society.

“Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore, this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.” (Luke 11:49-51)

Many scholars believe this passage in Luke to have been written after the fall of Jerusalem. In this passage, the Gospel authors are trying to make sense of such devastation. Was their interpretation healthy and life-giving or not?

I want to be careful here. Christianity has a long, anti-Semitic history of attaching punitive explanations to Jerusalem’s destruction, saying it was God’s punishment of the city for rejecting Jesus. I don’t believe that, even if the gospel authors connected Jesus’ rejection with what later happened to Jerusalem.

Whether it was life-giving or not, though, they made this connection. I also see them making a much more organic, intrinsic connection between a society that rejected Jesus’ teachings about wealth redistribution and restructuring the community to prioritize the poor and the poor people’s uprising and the revolt of the late 60s. The poor people’s revolt led to the Jewish-Roman war of 66-69 and then to Rome’s reprisal and razing Jerusalem in 70 C.E. The connection is less divinely imposed and arbitrary and much more natural about a political, economic, and social cause and effect.

Today, we as a society are witnessing resistance to a more distributively just way of organizing our society. A widening gap between haves and have-nots has been building over the last half-century here in the U.S. Do Jesus’ economic and political teachings have anything to offer our lives today? Even if we were to reduce Jesus’ teachings to his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 and Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6, might they be able to speak into our struggles today?

Take a moment to consider Jesus’ teaching of the Golden Rule. What would a society that prioritizes treating others as you would like to be treated look like? Would it be a system that made the members of the community more “selfish, hypocritical, crass and violent” (see Robert Owen’s, A New View of Society: Essays on the Principles of the Formation of Human Character, 1813), or would it create people who are less competitive, less individualistic, more generous, and collectively sustainable?

In Matthew’s gospel we read:

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:12-14)

Jesus’ version of the “golden rule” was the small gate and narrow path that leads to life.

And in the context of the golden rule, two things have caught my attention over the past few weeks as we all respond to the COVID-19 pandemic: 1) the criminal justice system in the U.S. and 2) the economic impact on the U.S. migrant community.

Setting Prisoners Free

Luke 4:18-19 is one of the key points of Jesus’ gospel: setting prisoners free. What would that mean for us today? Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney General issued an emergency order calling for especially vulnerable prisoners to be released into home confinement. Because of how closely packed people are in the U.S. prison systems, physical distancing is impossible. Prisons are being revealed to be places of mass death placing all inmates, regardless of their charges, on a kind of death row. This is specifically concerning for those who have not committed violent crimes. I don’t believe in capital punishment, but people imprisoned for nonviolent offenses don’t deserve a death penalty in the form of COVID-19.

I also think of those behind bars whose sentencing has not come up yet, who are there, guilty or innocent, simply because they cannot afford bail. Poverty in our global society already means an earlier death for too many, and this is deeply concerning.

Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to liberate the poor, to give the entire “kingdom” to the poor. Jesus’ gospel called his listeners to shape their society according to distributive justice. In our current setting, people in prison could become infected with and die of COVID-19 only because they could not afford bail or some other technicality. That is immoral.

Hundreds of prisoners and prison workers have already tested positive for the virus. It is a cruel irony that prisoners are producing hand sanitizer for the outside world, hand sanitizer that is desperately needed within prisons, and yet the very prisoners producing the sanitizer are being denied access themselves. I heard on the news last week that 20% of people infected will need hospitalization and 5% will need to be placed on ventilators. What does this mean for our prison population, mostly and disproportionately people of color? COVID-19 sharpens an already unjust system with an even sharper lethal edge.

Again, what does it mean for us today to take Jesus’ gospel seriously, “He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners” (Luke 4:18)? What does the golden rule look like in this context? What does basic humanity look like in this context?

Migrant Workers

My second concern over the last couple of weeks has been for the population of migrant workers at the heart of the U.S.’s food supply chain. These people are among those our present system deems the “least of these.” They already go to work every day in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. What does social distancing look like for them? They are not being provided with personal protective equipment and are working for poverty wages. They don’t receive any kind of extended sick leave or child care now that their children are not in school, nor are their work environments more sanitary or less crowded.

Thinking of our migrant community members working in these settings, I thought of a statement I read years ago now by Stephen J. Patterson:

“In the ancient world, those who lived on the margins of peasant life were never far from death’s door. In the struggle to survive, food was their friend and sickness their enemy. Each day subsistence peasants earn enough to eat for a day. Each day they awaken with the question: Will I earn enough to eat today? This is quickly followed by a second: Will I get sick today? If I get sick, I won’t eat, and if I don’t eat, I’ll get sicker. With each passing day, the spiral of starvation and sickness becomes deeper and finally, deadly. Crossan has argued that this little snippet of ancient tradition is critical to understanding why followers of Jesus and their empire of God were compelling to the marginalized peasants who were drawn to it. ‘Eat what is set before you and care for the sick.’ Here is the beginning of a program of shared resources of the most basic sort: food and care. It’s an exchange. If some have food, all will eat; if any get sick, someone who eats will be there to care for them. The empire of God was a way to survive—which is to say, salvation.” (The Lost Way: How Two Forgotten Gospels Are Rewriting the Story of Christian Origins, p. 74)

The migrant farmworker community is a modern-day reflection of the original audience Jesus taught about a preferential option for positive systemic change.

Because of the U.S. food supply chain, these workers are deemed critically essential. Yet this system may break down soon if their situation doesn’t change. Many are in the U.S. working on H-2A visas. While the present administration touts stimulus packages for other kinds of workers in our society, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is presently pushing to reduce wages for H-2A workers. There has to be a better way to save farmers.

Leviticus includes a Jewish application of the golden rule to “foreigners”:

“The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” (Leviticus 19:34)

This text informed Jesus’ preaching on loving others as oneself. It is the basis of the Golden Rule.

What would a society look like if structured on the golden rule rather than profit or a corporation’s bottom line?

The present pandemic is laying bare other areas of our unsustainable and unjust system. What would a world look like that is a safe, compassionate, inclusive, and just home for all of God’s children? Seeking Jesus’ gospel vision for a distributively just society means making sure everyone has access to the means for life.

And depending on how we respond right now, it may also be said of the powerful and privileged elite today, “this generation will be held responsible for it all.”

HeartGroup Application

[We have the ability to slow the spread of COVID-19 if we act together. In moments like these, we affirm that all people are made in the image of God to live as part of God’s peace, love, and justice. There is nothing more powerful and resilient than when people come together to prioritize “the least of these.”

We at RHM are asking all HeartGroups not to meet together physically at this time. Please stay virtually connected and to practice physical distancing. You can still be there for each other to help ease anxiety and fears. When you do go out, please keep a six-foot distance between you and others 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. We are more interconnected than we realize, as this has proven. And we need each other during this time.

This is a time to work together and prioritize protecting those most vulnerable among us. We’ll get through this. How many ways can you take care of others while we are physically apart?]

1. We’ve discussed two sectors of our society deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. What other sectors of our society have been on your heart, lately? Share with your group.

2. Yesterday, Jim Wallis published UNEQUAL SUFFERING: HERE’S HOW CONGRESS SHOULD HELP on Sojourner’s website. Following Jesus involves taking action. Many charities are also on the front line providing care and help to those presently in need; many while operating with a lower level of contributions than is typical. What are you seeing organizations in your area doing and what can your HeartGroup do to come alongside these organizations and offer help? Discuss with your group.

3. Together, rewrite Matthew 25:35-36 in light of the present pandemic. Who would be listed if the text were to be written during our present crisis?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Pick something from your discussion in number two and begin putting it into practice this coming week.

Thanks for checking in with us this week.

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

Another world is possible if we choose it.

Stay well! And where possible, please stay home.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week.