It is not about whether or not you love your neighbor, but how you do so: A Sermon

I preached this sermon at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC on Sunday, August 20th.

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind;
and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself,
The lawyer asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers,
who stripped him,
beat him,
and went away,
leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him,
he passed by on the other side.
So likewise, (by chance), a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him,
he was moved with compassion.
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal,
brought him to an inn,
and took care of him.
Then the next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
‘Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him (and to us), “Go and do likewise.”

He Qi, The Good Samaritan
He Qi’s The Good Samaritan

It can be difficult trying to hear with fresh senses this well tread passage. Hearing the phrase “The Good Samaritan” brings up childhood Sunday school lessons for some of us or our favorite television episodes where the main character acts with Good Samaritan compassion. And these starting points color how we hear this parable.

For me, it was when I was called a Good Samaritan after I picked up three hitchhikers at a gas station in my hometown, provided them with a meal, and a shower. Then drove them to their friend’s house two hours away. And really I was only called a “Good Samaritan” the next day after a night of being remed out by my parents. But honestly, I did it, because I was bored and wanted a disruption in my own life. In the parable there’s no sense of boredom, only honest to God compassion.

This is what I love about the parable of the Good Samaritan, it’s straightforward.

Clearly there are those who are morally corrupt: the robbers.
The morally ambiguous: the Levite and the priest.
And the moral hero: the Samaritan.
Unlike other parables too, it’s not about God’s Realm, but about the flesh and blood of this life.

When I was rereading our passage this week, I was struck by all the times the Samaritan touched this bloodied man.

And a quick but important side note: the robbers were not just stealing this man’s wallet, but attempting to take his life.

Now back to the compassionate Samaritan:
First, upon seeing the half dead man, he bends down, wraps up his bloodied body, pouring oil and wine on the wounds.
Next he puts the now bandaged man onto his animal or donkey and ride to the Inn.
At the inn, they stay the night, probably in the same room.
I can’t imagine that the Samaritan slept much that night, since he was probably checking in constantly on the man. Like a parent spending the first few nights with their newborn.
The next morning, the Samaritan gives the inn keeper money to take care of the man and that he would repay him any extra expenses.

In a way, this doesn’t sound like the parable I grew up with. I was taught a bloodless parable on felt board with characters who wore oversized Middle Eastern like clothing. And maybe this parable isn’t meant for kids. Because after spending the last two weeks with 8-11 year olds at Vacation Bible School, I can tell you that they don’t need this lesson. They’re just fine caring for those around them. It’s really for us adults.

So who is my neighbor according to Jesus?
It’s those who are within reach, who are within arm’s length.

Before I get too ahead of myself. Make no mistake about this: Jesus is calling us to be neighbors to those who are along our paths in life. It’s who you are sitting beside now. It’s who you will run into on the sidewalk after church. THEY ARE THE ONES WE ARE CALLED TO BE NEIGHBORS TO!

I stress this because often I get caught up in my own social media world. A world, that’s still real, but is not within arms reach. I can show compassion by texting emojis, but there are still men who sleep on the front steps of our church. I can send direct messages on Twitter to those in difficult life situations, but I often keep in my earbuds when I see an acquaintance who I don’t want to speak to on the sidewalk. I’m Timothy, I have other big important things to do, not just getting to know the name of the person ringing me up at Westside Market for my meatball parm sub. Because I am more often than not the priest and the Levite in this parable.

Is it because I consider myself a New Yorker now, fast walking, head down, and becoming more egocentric. I’m not sure, but Jesus is clear on this point: Know and love your neighbor.

But there’s more to this story that I’ll only touch on. You see the Levite and the priest, in a way, do nothing wrong. They’re bad neighbors, yes. Apathetic, very. But were they actively harming the man? No, of course.

The stark problem though that confronts me every time I read this passage is with our dismissal of the robbers. Why doesn’t anyone talk about why the man was in the ditch, half-dead in the first place?!

It’s complicated because you have to go back to the system.
There are robbers because they have a need.
They have a need because there’s inequality.
There’s inequality because the system was created like this.

Martin Luther King Jr. was onto this holy logic in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech when he said: “On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Amen, but woah. Timothy are you trying to tell us that it’s not just about acting kind to those we pass by each day or that it’s not good enough to care only for my family, but that I need to challenge the system? In short, yes. But in long form: no, but also.

No, keep in touch with those around you, but also make sure if they are feeling hopeless that you comfort them.

No, don’t stop reposting articles about Heather Heyer, who was killed by a white supremacist but also live in such a way that celebrates our diverse world and keep naming white supremacy as a sin and enemy of humanity.

No, continue giving money to good organizations that fight for human rights, dignity, and a more just world, but also show deep, deep love to those struggling financially, emotionally, and physically.

This tension of living like the Good Samaritan and changing the Jericho Road is not easy. Nor is following Jesus supposed to be easy. At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be the same person as you were, but transformed by a God who loves and comforts us and expects the same from us.

I’ll end my sermon just as Jesus did:
Go and do likewise.
Go, as in leave your place of comfort and enter places where people have lost all hope.
Do it, not to be called good, since the phrase “Good Samaritan” is not found in the text itself, but do it to further bring God’s Realm on Earth.
So Go and do likewise, Amen.

like any good ghost, the holy ghost haunts the world towards justice #halloweentheology

I wrote this paper a few years back and think it’s good to revisit it, especially on Halloween!

“for in the one spook we were all haunted into one house
jews or greeks, slaves or free
and we were all made to be spooked by the phantasm.”
1 Corinthians 12:13 (New Revised Specter Version)

white ghost outline shapes

In the Pentecostal church of my youth, we read the King James Version Bible, which has sprinkled throughout the New Testament a most halloween-ey phrase, a holy ghost. I witnessed this ghost spook congregations with healings, tongues-talkin’, and spontaneous revivals. Yet, this holy ghost has not stopped frightening me, even outside my Pentecostal tradition! This specter whispers visions of God’s Realm, but it is not able to transform the world on its own; rather, it seeks agency from humans and creatures alike. John Caputo, a self-identified weak theologian, spells out divinity not as a strong force siding with the wealthy and powerful, but as a call, a promise found with the no-bodies and the marginalized. In this way, God intervenes not through economics, politics, or any system where the powerful reign, but as the Scriptures assumes: through sex workers, stutterers, the imprisoned, and a poor Palestinian Jew killed by an Empire. I will focus on two aspects of the holy specter: 1) the equalizing measure of the holy ghost to fall on anyone, non-discriminate of race, class, or social location. 2) the anti-oppressive spooking found in early Pentecostalism, which still haunts white supremacy today. Like any good ghost, the holy specter haunts and beckons: it calls for justice and equality, expecting humans and creatures to help transform the world for God’s Realm.

Caputo declares that all are subject to the haunting specter. But before we step into the realm or the whisper of the unknown, it would be best to write some about weak or radical theology. This line of thought started with the Death of God theologians, most notably Thomas J.J. Altizer, who claimed God’s death in the 1960’s. Altizer and his ilk exclaimed that the supernatural God found in the holy scriptures no longer existed, if this God ever existed. They insisted that divinity is not above the Earth floating around in the heavens, but is immanent and became immanent because of Jesus. As well, for them, since on Christ’s cross God died, no split exists between the secular and the divine; rather, divinity permeates the universe. Weak theology picks up where Death of God theology left and adds to the conversation of immanence  with Jacques Derrida. For weak theology, God does not exist and instead of taking the Tillichian route of God as existence, takes the less worn road and declares, “God insists. God is neither presence nor absence, but insistence. God does not subsist; God insists.” [1] 

If Caputo is correct, and I believe he is, that the holy specter is haunting all, what might this look like? First off, the negative cultural residue must be wiped away from “haunting.” In Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, she writes, “Being haunted draws us affectively, something against our will and always a bit magically, into the structure of feeling of a reality we come to experience, not as cold knowledge, but as a transformative recognition.”[2] Haunting opens new faculties of knowledge, away from cerebral only understandings of life. Many Pentecostal and Charismatic worship services are haunted in this way. They become spaces in which one’s theological knowledge becomes obsolete because new experiences of the wholly ghastly are overwhelming. For instance, every Sunday morning in my youth, my great-grandmother would speak in tongues during worship. The holy ghost landed on this woman, who was born and raised in a country trailer park. She had no formal education above middle school and this hallowed haunter swept into her during the service without any qualms. She was haunted, and I can still see its shadow.

Second, the holy ghost can be found haunting the pages of our sacred script declaring an egalitarian religious participation. Paul, influenced by the specter, included the well-known ancient metaphor of the body in 1st Corinthians 12:12-31. In this passage, Paul wrote that ghastly gifts are all necessary and equal. If one is an ear they should do their best to listen well and if one is a foot they should respect their position and walk or run the best they are able. Then, adding a twist to this seemingly hierarchical metaphor, Paul declares, “But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another” (12:24-25). As a result, the specter’s gifts are for the common good, whether it is wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, or interpretation of tongues (1 Cor. 12:8-10). And these gifts, which we receive from the holy ghost are an extension of God’s grace. Thus, what we receive is for the building up of our communities and not for personal gain.

Thirdly, since the holy ghost rests beyond our idea of presence or absence, no one or group is able to have a definitive word on this mysterious character. Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz, German theologian, understanding this conundrum writes, “It seems easier to talk about God or about Jesus as the Christ than to try to describe in doctrinal form a reality that encompasses us when we encounter it and evaporates as soon as we try to pin it down.”[3] Like the negative theologians of the past, we are at a loss for words when it comes to this holy specter. We stand on equal footing, knowing that at any time the haunter of hopes can cast its shadow anywhere or at anytime transforming the world all together.

Notably, the Early Pentecostal Revivalist and Reverend William Seymour wrote of the strange workings of the hauntingly specter. In his magazine, Apostolic Faith, he wrote a section in 1908, titled “Questions Answered.” One of the questions asked was, “Is it necessary for a person to leave their home duties in order to wait at some place for the Holy Ghost?” He responded profoundly, “No; you can wait right in the kitchen or in the parlor or in the barn. Some have received the baptism of the Spirit in their barns, some in the kitchen, some at family worship, some on their porch, some about their business.”[4] The holy ghost can spook anyone at anytime, no where is safe.  For the holy ghost is not a kindly Casper the Friendly Ghost, who got along with everyone without any problems. No, this holy specter haunts the world for the common good, often disrupting the lives of the comfortable and well-off.

For a short time my grandparents lived in North Carolina. They lived on a farm and were faithful members of the Catholic Church. My grandmother will frequently share with me a story about her interaction with the Klu Klux Klan when she lived there. My father was only a few months old, around 1962, and one night she heard some chaos pursuing outside at the farm across the hill. She looked out the kitchen window and sees the KKK dressed in their white robes burning crosses at her African American neighbor’s farm. She calls the police. The police do not show up and the African American family move days later. That story haunts my grandmother because she knows that this was a violent act. Agreeing with our ghostly theorist Avery Gordon, “haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done.”[5] For my grandmother, she retells this story to haunt her hearers to not be like them.

The haunting that the KKK performs cannot compare to the haunting of the holy haunter. While the KKK burns crosses, kills black and brown persons, and seemingly dress like ghosts. The holy specter calls for justice, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, hospitality, and love.[6] The specter of specters is heard, but not seen. It spooks. When the holy specter enters a KKK meeting, members repent of their violent ghosting, they burn their sheets, and humble themselves to listen and ask for forgiveness from black and brown families and communities they have harmed.

In the early American Pentecostal Movement, racism was at the forefront. Two preachers founded American Pentecostalism. First, the founder of the Bethel Bible College in Topeka, KS and one of the first preachers to teach on speaking in tongues, a white man named Charles Parham. He was the pastor of the service in January 1901, where speaking in tongues first occurred. A few years later, a young black man, a son of two slaves, and blind in one eye came to hear Parham speak about this phenomenon, his name was William J. Seymour. Because of the racist laws, Seymour was not able to sit in the same room to hear Parham speak, but sat outside the door and listened. After spending a few days there, Seymour took up the cause of Pentecostalism and started to preach about it. He eventually led the Azusa Street Revival from 1906-1909.

Seymour as a Pentecostal had the holy spirit as the most important Person of his theology. He believed that the geist of eternity did not commend social or racial divisions. Gastón Espinosa, a Pentecostal Latino theologian wrote that the Azusa Revival “grew precisely because it was a transgressive social space wherein racial-ethnic minorities, women, the working class, and others could cross some of the deeply inscribed unbiblical racial-ethnic, class, gender, and national borders and boundaries of the day.”[7] This revival transcended time and place. Being is spooked by time.[8] When spaces are smoked with holy fire, time vanishes.

Racism, sexism, and classism are so prevalent in the US then and now. The haunter causes discomfort in the powers-that-be. When Parham visited the Azusa Revival, he condemned it in an editorial piece writing, “frequently a white woman, perhaps of wealth and culture, could be seen thrown back in the arms of a big buck nigger and held tightly as she shook in freak imitation of Pentecost.”[9] Parham’s vision of Pentecostalism was segregated; blacks and whites should attend different services. The Azusa Street Revival spooked him and after this Seymour never publicly wrote of Parham again.

Ghosts, and specifically the holy specter, haunt us not that we become fearful of it, but so it may waver our present state of comfort. For Parham, the state of his racism, his sympathy for the KKK, and his pro-Jim Crow attitude shook when he encountered the revival. When the holy ghost enters churches today, it often shakes them of their apathy of the poor, their neglect of the systems of injustice including racism, sexism, transphobia, the prison-industrial complex, and the disregard of single parents sitting in the pews. The holy specter does not side with the powerful, but haunts them until they share with those without. The haunter of hearts does not accept the apathy of the middle class manager, yet spooks them until they have relationships with their neighbors. The holy ghost haunts that we may love better, share fuller, and listen more deeply to the needs of others.

The Christian tradition does not play enough with pneumatology. For example, Augustine wrote that the Holy Spirit is the love between God the Father and God the Son. In this case, God’s Spirit has little to no human contact. Or process theologian, Blair Reynolds, who wrote, “Life in the Spirit means more than merely acting in harmony with or in obedience to the will of God. Because God is not beyond or exclusive of the world but is its receptacle, we are in direct contact with God, hence capable of entering into a mutual relationship with God.”[11] Therefore, it is impossible to leave God’s presence, which may seem logical for panentheists, but without the haunting that I’ve described why would there be a need to be transformed? What I attempted to do in this post is combine popular culture, God-talk, and social justice to sort out a spooktacular pneumatology.

The holy specter cannot be controlled. It can visit us at any moment and it will. It spooks. Or in the words of Caputo, “Specters are highly egalitarian; they disturb everyone.”[12]  It haunts us, calling us to live as if we’re already in God’s Realm.

ghost-clip-art-aieo4bxi4


[1] John D. Caputo et al., It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call (Shelter50 Publishing Collective LLC, 2015). p. 31-33

[2] Avery F. Gordon and Janice Radway, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, 2nd edition (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008). p. 8

[3] Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz, God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis (New York : Geneva: Continuum Intl Pub Group, 1996). p. 5

[4] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014). p. 194

[5] Avery F. Gordon, “Who”s there?’: some answers to questions about Ghostly Matters., website, October 26, 2007, http://www.averygordon.net/writing-haunting/whos-there/.

[6] John D. Caputo et al., It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call (Shelter50 Publishing Collective LLC, 2015). p. 31

[7] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014). p. 101

[8] John D. Caputo et al., It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call (Shelter50 Publishing Collective LLC, 2015). p. 34

[9] Gastón Espinosa, William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History (Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014). p. 99

[11] Blair Reynolds, Toward a Process Pneumatology (Selinsgrove Pa. : London ; Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna Univ Pr, 1990). pg. 158

[12] John D. Caputo et al., It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call (Shelter50 Publishing Collective LLC, 2015). p. 19


Bibliography

Caputo, John D., Katharine Sarah Moody, Tad DeLay, Ross Pennock, Micah Purnell, John Hardt, Joshua Harris, et al. It Spooks: Living in Response to an Unheard Call. Shelter50 Publishing Collective LLC, 2015.

Espinosa, Gastón. William J. Seymour and the Origins of Global Pentecostalism: A Biography and Documentary History. Durham ; London: Duke University Press Books, 2014.

Gordon, Avery F., and Janice Radway. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. 2nd edition. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Jensen, David H., ed. The Lord and Giver of Life: Perspectives on Constructive Pneumatology. Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

Moltmann, Jurgen. The Spirit of Life. 3rd Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Muller-Fahrenholz, Geiko. God’s Spirit: Transforming a World in Crisis. New York : Geneva: Continuum Intl Pub Group, 1996.

Reynolds, Blair. Toward a Process Pneumatology. Selinsgrove Pa. : London ; Cranbury, NJ: Susquehanna Univ Pr, 1990.

 

The Prophet Isaiah of America Saith

Isaiah 2:2-4

In the days to come
God’s justice will extend beyond the heavens
encircling galaxies, borders, and flags
All peoples and creatures shall recognize such love
They will say, “Have you heard? The Not-Yet has become the Now-Is!
People who once lived on the streets, now have roofs over their heads.
Our bellies are full of food and joy. Prisons are empty!
Oil is no longer necessary to survive!”
God has given us all these beautiful resources
and imparted in us how to use them.
World peace agreements will be immediately signed
with God overseeing that they are enacted
Warheads, drones, tanks, and guns shall
be melted into communion tables,
tennis rackets, and new bridges.
The people of nations will learn gardening skills,
they’ll design new musical instruments,
and neighbor will care outrageously for neighbor.

Last Meals

meal 2

“No Seconds” by Henry Hargreaves

It might seem odd to discuss Death Row inmates’ last meals and the Last Supper, but I don’t find it much of a stretch. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • Jesus knew he would be killed in a few hours, as too those on Death Row.
  • Although it’s after this meal that Jesus will be sentenced to crucifixion. Those on Death Row are often convicted several years before they’re executed.
  • Death Row prisoners and Jesus are both executed by the State: Roman Crucifixion and US Execution.

Yet, it’s not just these similarities that I find compelling to think through last meals, it’s also in the Letter to the Hebrews that speaks of prisoners. It reads,

Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. (Heb. 13.3)

 Who would’ve ever thought the Bible could be so political?

The writer to the Hebrews writes that we should remember those in prison, as if we are there ourselves. Death row prisoners, whom our system of justice has declared not to be worthy of existence, are our sisters and brothers. Yet, often these prisoners do not dine with their families or friends, but by themselves with guards watching. Indeed, an isolating last meal.

But this was not so with Jesus’ Last Supper. It was also no da Vinci-like portrait. It would’ve been tense, chaotic, and absolutely un-chill. There would’ve been more than just his male disciples, but also women and children and probably even some animals. It was less cozy, and more like trying to find a seat at Starbucks during a rush. When you have to stand over by the sugar and straws waiting for someone to leave their spot. That’s the Last Supper.

The Letter to the Hebrews was written decades after the Last Supper, but speaks to the heart of the Gospel, which was found that night:

To Be There.

Be there for those who have their voice actively silenced.

Be there for Death Row prisoners, no matter what the courts have said they have done.

Be there in prayer.

Be there in letters.

Be there at the table.

Be there just as Christ

who goes before us,

behind us,

and with us.

Amen.

 

St. Paul armed with a black bandana and a chant

 

img_3593-1

“There is a perfect likeness between the Christian and the anarchist: their object, their instinct, points, only toward destruction.” (The Antichrist, Nietzsche, 168)

The first major protest I attended was against the G20, which was hosted in Pittsburgh during the fall of 2009. My friends and I borrowed my hall mate’s car and drove from Philly at 5am. We specifically went to this protest because it was not permitted by the city. It was truly an anarchist march. My group dressed in black, but had colorful bandanas just in case we separated. Standing in the park, waiting for the protest to begin, several reporters came and asked us why we opposed the G20. Our talking points were:

  • it was undemocratic for a few people to decide the fate for whole populations,
  • it was hierarchical in that only the powerful ones have a voice, and
  • the poor and the Earth are the ones who will suffer the most out of these deals.

I carried a black flag for the duration of the protest. Sound cannons and smoke bombs were used to hinder us. Eventually, my group left the protest once the riot police started shooting rubber bullets. I believe Paul would’ve been there with us, wearing all black, waving a black flag, and chanting “The people united will never be defeated!”


Perhaps a battlesquare for our situation would pin statists (those who support the State) against anarchists (anti-hierarchical, anti-oppression, anti-State), but this is hard to comprehend when their narratives run completely opposite. As well, it would be difficult to have any kind of reconciliation or compromise to bring together the statist and the anarchist. This would turn into a perverse version of socialism, where little states would own capital. Thus, it would have to be something beyond the battlesquare and not the two combing of the narratives.

Here Paul helps us: For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another (Galatians 5:13, NRSV).

Paul uses the oppressive form of slavery to conceptualize freedom. This version of Paul’s freedom has resonance with the anarchist form of reciprocal freedom. In the States, we have a rhetoric of negative freedom, a freedom-from being told to do something. This is why talk-radio can spew such racist, sexist, and oppressive rhetoric. Colloquially, the quote “Don’t tread on me” sums up the States’ version of freedom. Then, there’s positive freedom, freedom-to do what one wants. While Paul may seem closer to this idea, it still holds in utmost regard the autonomous individual. This is reflected in “My body, choice.” Finally, and most importantly, is reciprocal freedom, freedom-with others. I am not free unless you are free. This is not about self-policing one’s language and actions, but through listening, caring, and becoming a slave to one another.

The opening quote from Nietzsche is absolutely essential: Christianity and anarchism’s end goal is destruction. This destruction though is about changing the-world-as-it-is and not its obliteration. Capitalists and corporations are the ones already destroying the Earth through their horrible business practices. Paul wants to see change in the world through reciprocal love and compassion.

One of my favorite anarcho-folk-punk bands, Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union, spells this form of freedom as slavery to one another in their song “My idea of fun.

live as you make it up cause we’re enough
you’ll never go without cause we’re enough
we’ll buy a house cause we’re enough
we’ll grow some food cause we’re enough

We’re slaves to one another in love and not because we have an ethical duty to do so. At the G20 protest, reciprocal freedom abounded. Protestors gave a hand to those who had fallen behind. Anarchist medics aided those with smoke in their eyes. I saw God’s realm on those Pittsburgh streets and I believe Paul would’ve stood hand-in-hand with us pronouncing Another World is Possible.

Adventure Time as a postmodern Book of Judges

If you haven’t watched Adventure Time, you’re missing out on a delightful, fun, sometimes philosophical, but always zany cartoon. Finn and Jake, a young blonde boy and a mustard colored stretching dog, maintain the roles as the heroes in the Land of Ooo. They battle against creatures and kingdoms that harm. And uniquely, there are many kingdoms: Flame, Ice, Candy, Lumpy Space, and the list just gets stranger. Yet, Jake and Finn do not inhabit any of these kingdoms.

Finn and Jake

The connection to the biblical book of Judges did not seem obvious to me at first. It was an episode from the current season titled “Walnuts & Rain” that tipped me off. Finn and Jake fall into separate holes somewhere in a forest. At the bottom of the hole Finn finds himself in the Kingdom of Huge. King Huge eats constantly, fed by the Food Boys. Finn asks politely to leave, but the King has the Food Boys bind him. Finn breaks free with some trickery of his own, but was caught by the King. In the knick of time, Jake also falls into the same space. With Finn in the King’s giant hands, he asks Jake, “What are you going to do about it?” He said this unassuming of Jake’s stretching abilities. Jakes makes a fist and stretches it across the King’s face. Jake and Finn make their way out of the hole and travel back to the Tree House.

Finn’s hole adventure parallels the story of Judge Ehud (Judges 3:12-30). In the story of Ehud, he makes his way to pay tribute (taxes imposed by another empire) to King Eglon of Moab. The writer notes that Ehud is left-handed. He hides a knife on the opposite side, on his right leg. (I guess this was not a place where the Ancient TSA patted). He gives the tribute to King Eglon, who also is a huge man, and then asks if he might speak with him privately. In the room alone, Ehud stabs the King, his guts fall out, and Ehud exits through the bathroom into the sewer.

Ehud
In this medieval painting, Ehud’s garb resembles Finn’s. Coincidence? I think not.

Captivity, plan-making, and King-hurting are present in both stories. While Ehud as a judge identifies and fights for the Hebrews, Jake and Finn represent wandering judges, not bound by place. As well, in the Book of Judges, God raises up Ehud. Finn and Jake have a calling, but have no caller. Even Grob Gob Glob Grod, who Ooo deems as a deity, does not call creatures to a purpose. When Finn and Jake embark on their adventures and face disrupters, harmers, and just plain evil (The Lich), they perform justice without a telos other than making sure others are unharmed.

Jake and Finn are postmodern characters because they know no boundaries, walls, or patriotism. Instead, it’s almost as if they are part of every kingdom. Sure, they are called upon by Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom and Ice King tries to pry himself into their lives, but it’s not as if they are private contractors for the Candy Kingdom. They are outsiders fighting for a just world.

The biblical tradition of judges continues with such people as Vandana Shiva, Cheryl Clarke, Cornel West, Naim Ateek, the leaderful movement of #BlackLivesMatter, Evo Morales, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Bill Wylie-Kellermann. May we listen and join them in their fight for justice and hope.

The Baptism of Jesus and a tree tornado (sermon)

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Psalms 29:1-11 (NRSV)
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of God’s name;
worship the Lord in holy splendor.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in God’s temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king forever.
May the Lord give strength to God’s people!
May the Lord bless God’s people with peace.

Everyday we hear many voices. We hear intercom announcements from the MTA telling us that we need to hold onto our personal belongings because there is always someone willing to take them. Or that we need to be on the lookout for suspicious looking people and packages and if we see something that we need to say something. We hear weather reports that inform us in what to wear that day. And we hear and see advertisements telling us that we are inadequate in our dress and that we should buy this piece of clothing to be with the in crowd. And on top of that, we have our own internal voices that compete. Arguing with ourselves with where we should go, what we should watch, what we should order to eat, or if we should call this person because the last time we talked with them they had me so upset, but right now we know that they are struggling with some big.

Needless to say we are bombarded with voices.

In our text today, we hear three voices. The first is the narrator, the Gospel writer. The other two voices are John the Baptizer and God.

The narrator sets the scene. We are in the wilderness, near the Jordan River. We hear this man making proclamations, but he’s clothed, not like us. He’s wearing camel’s hair with a leather belt. This man is John the baptizer. He’s performing a baptism of repentance.

The Greek word for repentance is metanoia. It should be understood as the changing of one’s heart and mind. Or as one commentator puts it, “to be transformed and turned around; to have your heart made over; to now be playing a new tune, returned.”

And with the rest of the people from the Judean countryside and all of the people of Jerusalem, we confess our sins and are baptized in that Jordan River.

Then John, with excess honey dripping from his beard, shouts out for all to hear, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

The wild man has spoken.

Out of the crowd comes Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee and he too is baptized by the locust-eater. But he doesn’t say a word. He could have declared then and there that he was the one who John was just talking about. He could’ve pointed to himself or raised his hand showing to the crowd that it was him who John was not worthy enough to untie his sandal. But he doesn’t.

When Jesus was coming up from the water, the heavens tore apart and like a dove the Spirit descends on him. And a voice came from heaven declares, “You are my Child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

When this baptism narrative sits next to our Psalm reading, they seem to have a similar landscape. Both reference the wilderness. In the Psalm, God’s voice is powerful, strong, and can break the cedars of Lebanon. God shakes the wilderness, even the wilderness of Kadesh. God causes the oaks to whirl and leaves the forest bare.

With some biblical imagination, I wonder if this is what God’s voice sounded like. As the heavens were being torn open, the cedars were being uprooted creating a tree tornado around the crowd. God’s proclamation about Jesus would’ve been impossible to miss.

tree tornado

But with the many voices that we hear on a regular basis, sometimes it’s easy to be distracted from God’s voice. It’s not an everyday occurrence that the heavens tear open or God’s voice becomes audible for all to hear. Thankfully, we have services like this one to quiet the voices inside ourselves and to listen deeply for God’s voice. But quieting those internal voices takes practice and discipline.

Let me finish with this, God tells Jesus that he is beloved and that God is pleased with him. There’s not much context for it. It comes out of blue, since in Mark’s Gospel, this is Jesus’ first scene. He hasn’t done much. In this way, God is proclaiming, unlike the advertisers, that Jesus is adequate. I believe God comforts us those same words too:
we are God’s children,
we are beloved,
and God is well pleased with us, just as we are.

(This was originally preached at Riverside Church, NYC at the Morning Light Service)

Riot Gear will Collect Dust: A Proclamation from the Prophet Isaiah of America #StayWokeAdvent

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island,
and cry to them that they have not been forgotten,
they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.

A megaphone cries out:
“In the streets prepare the way of justice,
make straight in city parks a highway for our God.
Every empty lot shall be a home,
and every Trump Tower–rent controlled apartments;
unfair minimum wages shall be living wages,
and riot gear will collect dust.
Then the presence of God shall be unveiled,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of God has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry out?
Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice?
Or the giant gap in economic inequality?
Or that America’s democracy is owned by the Koch Brothers and other corporate elites?”
All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of God blows upon it: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
The grass withers, the flower fades; but hope for the end of police brutality and the rise of caring communities transcends life.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world;
Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear;
say to the police departments across America,
“BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!”
See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly;
her comforting presence brings about change.
She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore;
she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore,
and she will carry all in her bosom,
and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth,
one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.

i cant' breathe

Prayer for Ferguson, Brooklyn, and the School of the Americas

This weekend, a group of students from Union Theological Seminary and myself travelled to Columbus, GA. We gathered with over 1,000 others to protest for the closing of the School of the Americas (SOA). For nearly 70 years, the SOA has trained soldiers in South and Central America in starting coups, mass murdering los campesinos (poor folk and farmers), and killing political and religious leaders (Allende, Che, Oscar Romero). All of this filters through the ideology of anticommunist propaganda. Thousands of people, named and unnamed, have been killed in the name of freedom and democracy. They have been killed because the powerful want to stay powerful and poor lives do not matter.

As the US military teaches oppressive tactics to the South Hemisphere, we enact it on our own soil by killing black women and men. Law enforcement use their power to rule over communities and, more often than not, get away with it. They get away with tearing lives apart with a modern day lynching. For the killings of Michael Brown, Akai Kareem Gurley, and Shantel Davis, we must continue to cry out for justice. Because unless there is justice for Brown, Davis, and Gurley, there won’t be justice for us all.

justice for mike

My prayer is simply that we use our legs to protest to show our government and police officers that they are unjust in how they treat people of color in the US and around the world. Black lives matter! Brown lives matter!

My prayer is that we use our words to encourage one another. Movements die quickly when their members fight over petty differences.

My prayer is that we use our hands. With one hand, we care about the immediate needs of our neighborhoods and communities. You can’t end global poverty without first knowing and lending a hand at local shelters, soup kitchens, and Catholic Workers. With the other hand, to learn, lead discussions, and think globally about racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

Lastly, my prayer is that we use our hearts to connect with one another. In many movements, the key to being in the in-crowd is to know as much as you can about the area of interest. What if we not only focused on knowledge (How does memorizing statistics on NYC poverty help the person sleeping on the street?), but found empathetic ways to connect with one another.

Let us continue to fight against police brutality.

Fight against racism in the US.

Fight against groups that hinder our causes: the KKK, fascist and racist policies.

Fight for all people to have a decent chance at life.

ferguson

Jesus the Riddler and the Parable of the Talents (Sermon)

Jesus loved to work with parables. And in Matthew’s Gospel, from the 13th chapter onward, you can find them everywhere. I like to think of parables like I think of riddles. They make your mind think one way, but really the answer is flying in the opposite direction. Growing up, my mom would prepare the children’s sermon every Sunday. She’d gather all the little ones to the front, just like we do here, and usually it was the same format. She would read a short story from a book. Then, we would pray and then sing a song. These stories were part of a tradition that her mother passed on to her. So there was always an intimate sacredness present. I can even still remember some of the illustrations in those books. These stories would always push a certain moral, like obey your parents or trust God in all things. And we can get caught up in doing the same things to Jesus’ parables, making them in moral message.

What’s even worse is that we tend to allegorize the characters.
We place God as the main character and humans perform the smaller roles. And somehow we figure out something to say about God through these parables.

Traditionally, today’s scripture passage has been read as such. Jesus is the master who gives the talents to those who follow him. He then goes away; up to heaven, and during that time Jesus’ followers are making use of their talents. When Jesus returns the followers have to present what they have done with their talents. Rewards are given to those who doubled their talents and for the one follower who buried the talent; he will be cast off into eternal damnation and his one talent will be given to the one with the most. The moral of the parable is: “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Does this sound like Jesus? The one who told the rich young man chapters earlier, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”  (Matthew 19:21 CEB)

Does this sound like the Jesus who said, “When you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that you may give to the poor in secret”? (Matthew 6:3-4 CEB)

Does this sound like the Jesus who made it clear that ” You cannot serve God and wealth”? (Matthew 6:24 CEB)

Jesus teaches against the notion that the rich should get richer while the poor get poorer. To follow Jesus means to give up your wealth and give everything to those in need. Then, why does this parable sound like it’s telling us to do the very opposite?

As some of us heard last week, this is Jesus’ Second Sermon on the Mount. Although, this time it’s less about how we should live and more about how we should get ready for God’s Realm to crash on Earth.

Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel would often start his parables by saying
“The kingdom of heaven is like this…” Strangely, our parable doesn’t start off this way; instead it reads, “it is as if.” Maybe Jesus is not speaking of the kingdom of heaven, maybe it’s about another kingdom that one should use caution living in.

We hear of the Master giving his most trustworthy and inner circle of slaves his money. It should be noted here that it’s “to each according to his ability.” Already, we know that the last slave couldn’t be trusted with more than just one talent. Which is still a ton of money in the ancient world. If one denarius was the daily wage of a laborer, then one talent was worth 600 denarii. That’s almost two years of work.

The parable continues that immediately the master leaves the slaves with the money.

The first and second slaves go off and double their talents. But how? Did they double it through opening new businesses or were they flipping houses or investing it in the stock market? When I was researching this I found that much of it was through giving small loans to farmers. Now this doesn’t sound so bad, except that the contracts were written up so that the farmers had to use their land as collateral. The idea was that eventually the farmer’s crops would fail, the farmer could not pay the loan off anymore, and the loan granter would then own that land. With 2010’s mortgage crisis, still fresh in our memory, we know that these types of situations still happen. It’s quite possible then that the first and second slaves exploited their friends and others who lived nearby with these loans.

The third slave did something very curious though he buried the talent. He did not participate in exploiting those around him. The burial of the talent looks like a bad deal, but it was his resistance.

This practice of a master giving his money to his slaves was a peculiar Roman law called peculium. The idea was that although the master was giving money to the slaves, it was never the slave’s money, but always the master’s. Because remember: slaves owned nothing. And to make sure that this was upheld, there were stacks of Roman law books that insured that the slaves gave back their master’s money.

And in my mind this is related to the phenomena of Halloween.
Every year, parents purchase or make their kids Halloween costumes. The parents decorate the house and buy candy for other costumed kids. The night of Trick-or-Treating parents chaperon the kiddos going door-to-door gathering up candy. Jimmy Kimmel, late night talk show host, started a tradition where parents take a video of their children’s reaction when they tell the kids that they ate their Halloween candy. My favorite response this year was a little boy who opens all of the kitchen cabinets angrily and then looks to camera and says, “Get out!” There are other videos of little ones saying, “That’s okay mommy. You must have been hungry. There’s always next year.” Under the system of peculium, it is perfectly right for the parents to eat the kid’s candy, it’s not like the kids did anything to deserve the candy, it was all the parent’s doing, the costume, the evening of trick or treating. But as the children in these videos remind us it may not be perfectly right.

Continuing with the parable, when the Master finally returns, the slaves present their talents. In the case of the first two slaves who doubled their talents the Master exalted them saying, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” In the sight of the Master, they did well in getting him more money through a means that harmed others.

The third slave talked back to the Master saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” He gave back to the master was he received. This friends, was a slap in the face. The Master responds with name calling with words like wicked, lazy, unworthy. And this should make our ears perk up. The slaves who doubled their talents were trustworthy, while the last slave’s worth was denied.

The Master eventually throws out the third slave into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth for resisting and talking back.

The Apostle Paul reminds us in Romans 12 to “weep with those who weep, to associate with the lowly. Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” In short, we are to live as Christ lived.

This is our calling. To weep with those who are in the outer darkness. To take their hands and stay with them. To associate ourselves not with the Masters of this world, but with the lowly, the outcast. The third slave was courageous, but at the same time was afraid. There are many more in this world that allow fear to hold them back from calling out their abusers. May we be a people who keep our eyes peeled and hearts open to love the outcast and dive deep into the outer darkness even if we are too afraid of what we might find.