Beliefs, Bible, Spiritual

charlottesville and revelation

My church’s Pub Theology crew wanted to discuss the doctrine of Revelation. As is my custom, I created a worksheet to help start our conversation:

Working Definition: Revelation unveils the Unknown. 

What is it:
An experience, an event, an inspiration that moves one beyond the vision of the ordinary. 
Transcendent 
Transformative 

What is it not
Revelation does not provide us with all that there is to know about God. 
It does not speak against Biblical theology, i.e. it will never tell you to hate your neighbor.
It is not new information.

Sources and Sites of Revelation:
Scripture
Jesus Christ
Preaching
People
Music
Animals
Campfires
Creation
Protests
Soup Kitchens

Thomas Merton Plaque

A plaque of Thomas Merton’s famous Revelation

The Intersection of Revelation and Charlottesville 

“Flannery O’Connor depicts an event of “revelation” in a way that points to the deeper theological meaning of the term. She tells of the story of Mrs. Turpin, a hard-working, upright, church-going farmer’s wife, who is unexpectedly accosted by a mentally disturbed teenage girl in a doctor’s office. After bearing Mrs. Turpin’s superior attitude and demanding remarks about white trash and black people as long as she can, the girl suddenly throws a heavy book at Mrs. Turpin, begins to strangle her, and calls her a “warthog from hell.” When Mrs. Turpin returns to her farm, she cannot get the girl’s words out of her mind. Standing beside her pigpen, she is outraged by being called a warthog. She knows she is a good person, certainly far superior to white trash and black people. She reminds God of that, as well as of all the work she does for the church, “What did you send me a message like that for?” She angrily asks God. But as she stared into the pigpen, she has a glimpse of “the very heart of mystery,” and begins to absorb some “abysmal life-giving knowledge.” She has a vision of a parade of souls marching to heaven, with white trash, black people, lunatics, and other social outcasts up front, and respectable people like herself at the rear of the procession, the shocked expressions on their faces showing that all their virtues are being burned away. Mrs. Turpin returns to her house with shouts of hallelujah from the heaven-bound saints in her ears.”

“Revelation is an event that shakes us to the core.”

“Revelation compels momentous decisions about who God is and how we are to understand the world and ourselves.”

The previous quotes are from the tremendous book Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel Migliore (p. 22)


Our conversation was complicated by the group constantly arguing for what I deemed as little “r” revelation. They described events that shaped new ways of visioning the world, but not necessarily with the consequences of material change. For example, someone mentioned walking in the park, feeling awestruck, and not being able to see a leaf again without thinking of God’s handiwork. This is lovely, for sure, but is not capital “R” Revelation. 

When Biblical Revelations occur, which seem to only happen to men, the recipient’s  lives are transformed. After Moses encounters God in a burning bush, he changes his path, goes back to Egypt, and joins in the liberation of the Hebrew People. Paul’s revelation of God knocks his life out of control, no longer does he kill Christians, but now he preaches a Gospel for both Jews and Gentiles. According to these Biblical Revelations, they happen when they’re least expected and one is persuaded towards a way of life-giving love. 

And oh how I pray for Revelations for politicians, CEOs, & white supremacists that they may change their ways. Often I think that people could help foster acts of Revelation. Like the teenage girl in the Flannery O’Connor tale and help others to see that their vision of the world is destructive.

I ended the conversation at Pub Theology saying that if a Revelation does not create a material change, not just a spiritual one, then you should’ve been paying closer attention.

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#BlackLivesMatter, Justice, Sermon

leaving our nets behind: sermon on discipleship

[I preached this sermon last Sunday at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC. I’ve included the passage, prayer, and sermon. It was written between overnights at the shelter, a Student Senate Retreat, and supporting another friend who preached earlier that morning.]

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherfolk.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John,
who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them;
and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

brick testament Jesus

Prayer: Oh God, we can be a stubborn people. We like things the way they are. We depend on being comfortable. But you, O God, search for us, and push us in directions that some of us would never have imagined. This morning, open us to hear a tender and vital word from you. We ask this in the name of the one who calls us to follow. Amen.

This past week has been exhausting, exciting, anxious-ridden, and surreal all at the same time. With Martin Luther King Jr. day, the start of classes, and the Emergency Shelter Network Annual meeting, it couldn’t be anything, but less. What I want to highlight is the Annual Meeting of the Emergency Shelter Network (ESN). It was held on the third floor of the Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church. 30 people were present, representing about 40 churches in the 5 boroughs. The deputy commissioner of Homeless Services shared some of the ways the city was helping house people, along with some overwhelming statistics, including that NYC in 1983 14,000 people were in shelters or on the street. In 2008, when ESN became a non-profit, 35,000 people were homeless, and the count in December 2014, our city has over 60,000 people without homes. After hearing these statistics, a hush swept through the room. A shelter coordinator piped up and asked, “Is anything we are doing actually alleviating poverty?” No answer was given that night. We moved onto other subjects and eventually spent the rest of time discussing ways to recruit volunteers. Because unless your church or synagogue that has over 1,000 members and hosts a shelter once or twice a week, you are probably scrambling to find people. Needless to say it wasn’t the most uplifting meeting I’ve ever been to. As I made the trek back to 1 train, I just couldn’t get out of my mind, the purpose of a volunteer.

Before I became the volunteer coordinator at Broadway Community, for years I volunteered at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. I volunteered because it made me feel good, which is how some of the other coordinators at the meeting told us to pitch it to those wanting to volunteer. “It will warm your heart to help those in need” and “build your resume.” Or even “just doing a little can go a long way.”

And with the backdrop of American Christianity, I can hear some of these same reasons for why one would want to call themselves Christian. “Follow Jesus, my friend. It’s easy; just say a prayer and you’ll be right with God.” Or “read your devotions in the morning, I do, and it’s like they last the whole day.” And often, this is how we read the discipleship stories. Jesus comes walking along this beautiful beach, happens to run into some fisher folk, calls out to them, “Hey, follow me.” It doesn’t take them a second to think about it and they’re following Jesus.

But reading our passage today, it seems more complicated than just Jesus moseying by the Sea of Galilee calling for disciples. Our passage begins with, “Now after John was arrested.” Let’s just have that sink in. In the ancient world, prisons were full of rabble-rousers, people who struggled economically, political prisoners, and those who didn’t abide by the Roman Empire. John the Baptizer fits all of those descriptions, as well, according to Mark, baptized Jesus forty days earlier. These are the kinds of people Jesus hung out with and even was baptized by.

Mark’s Gospel seems to point out that it was because of John’s arrest that Jesus’ ministry began. That there was sense of urgency.

And thinking about world history, there always seems to be something catastrophic that happens, that builds momentum for a movement. For us last year, it was the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner that lead to the movement Black Lives Matter. It happened in El Salvador in the 1970’s when Archbishop Oscar Romero’s dear friend was killed that he started to side with the oppressed. And it was the drought in the Caesarea in the 4th century, that St. Basil the Great emptied his barns, giving to those in need.

Jesus’ ministry starts in turmoil. During a time when everything wasn’t okay with the world. It wasn’t Bible Play Land, where the mountains are lush, the fishermen are always smiling, and Jesus’ hair is blowing in the wind.

John had been arrested and Jesus starts to proclaim the good news of God. Now we need to stop right here because in ancient Rome, this phrase good news was usually paired with Caesar, not God. The good news of Caesar included the Pax Romana, that if you didn’t assimilate to Rome’s ways you would be killed or enslaved. Additionally, it was written in several places in the Empire, “the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him; therefore let a new era begin from his birth.” These were the kinds of proclamations Jesus had to compete with. When we proclaim the good news of God, we are proclaiming that no person, nor political or economic system can hold a candle to God’s Realm. This is what Jesus is declaring.

Then Jesus exclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” God’s Realm is so close we can taste it. We saw a glimpse of it at Jesus’ baptism. God is ready to take reign of the world bringing true justice and equality. I get so excited by these words, “the kingdom of God has come near.” It fills me with hope, but Mark wastes no time. He immediately has us walking beside Jesus along the Sea of Galilee.

There we meet two sets of brothers who also happen to be fisher folk, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. But here’s the weird thing. Rabbis, in the ancient world, would not go after potential students. Rather, students would follow the Rabbis around, trying to gather as much wisdom and hopefully they would be included in the group too. As well, the disciples who usually followed Rabbis were fairly educated themselves. Jesus goes against the business as usual Rabbi and disciple relationship. He goes out of his way to find those who were as John Calvin called, “rough mechanics.” Jesus could’ve called anyone, but he chose those who were not the elite.

As Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

And in the case of fisher folk, they were nearly in the lowest class of society, the artisan class. The Roman Empire also made sure that they stayed there through heavy taxation to the tune of 80% of fish they caught. Those fish would then be dried and salted at a factory, which was owned by the Caesar at the time. Then the fish sold would contribute to the benefit of the Empire, never the fishermen.

I wonder some of the thoughts going through the brothers’ minds when Jesus asked them to the follow him. Were they happy to give up the family business to follow this stranger? Had they seen Jesus hang around John the Baptizer and assumed that he was one of the good ones? Or were they frightened, not knowing what would happen next. Scripture doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine it being an easy decision. Simon and Andrew left behind their nets. James and John left behind their father. Following Jesus changed the course of their lives.

In 2009, I read many stories of saints of old who after hearing the Gospel message gave everything away and dedicated their life to helping those in need. I felt that this was what it meant to be a disciple (and still do). So during winter break, I donated most of my clothes to the shelter, and kept two pairs of pants, five shirts, and one coat. Mostly because after reading the words of St. Basil the Great,

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes.”

I wanted to make sure that I wasted nothing. And there was something freeing about that experience. I felt closer to God and worried less about what to wear. A few months later though, I got a job at a Thrift Store and started to swap out clothes and things went downhill from there.

To follow Jesus, in a way, means to me to be less distracted. To not let petty concerns eat up your time.

We are not called to be volunteers for God’s Realm.
We are not called to add an hour or two a week to our lives, so that we can feel good.
Jesus disrupts our lives from the ordinary ebb and flow to an alternative way of life.
We are called to be disciples and to follow Christ wherever he may lead.
To leave behind those nets in our lives that hold us back from doing so. Whether that be our self-doubt, or anxiety about what others may think,
or that we do not feel worthy enough to do something like that.
Christ still calls over and over, yet never away from world, but into it.
May we listen to that call and leave our nets behind. Amen.

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Advent, Beliefs, Christainity, Scripture

birth narratives overview: theological, political, historical (part one)

This will be a two part series. The first post will concern the New Testament writers who are not Luke or Matthew because they actually have birth narratives. Paul, Mark, and John are the other writers who even mention that Jesus was born or at least has a particular town that he was from. Since the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are sandwiched in the Christian Testament timeline then these writers will give us insight to what communities of believers thought before and after 80-90CE. 

7th century Sinai Nativity Icon

During the Advent season, I read the birth narratives at least twenty times. I read them in preparation for Sunday School and re-read them to be clued into something new. This is me attempting to read with fresh eyes, which is a struggle for me. Instead,  I come back time and again to these glorious texts using a political and historical approach. In other words, I read them as historical theological documents influenced by the community of the writer. In the next post, much more of the political and theological interpretation will spill forth, but for now here are the other writers of the New Testament on Jesus’ birth.

St. Paul

The earliest writer in the Christian Testament was St. Paul. His canonical writings date from the late 40s to early 60s CE. Paul’s letters were believed to be holy script by the early 100s. In his letters, he was not correcting the early church’s assumption about the historical Jesus, but theologically explained Jesus’ relation with God. In addition, Paul demonstrated that it doesn’t matter whether you are Gentile or Jew, God’s redeeming all through Jesus. In Paul’s earliest letter to the Galatians, he had to confront some confusion as to whether Jesus was a historical figure or a god who floated down from the heavens. St. Paul responds Jesus was “born of a woman”(4:4). In other words, St. Paul believed that Jesus was born a historical person, lived in a particular time, and had a body.

Mark

The first Gospel written was Mark. This Gospel begins with Jesus’ adult ministry and makes no mention of Bethlehem. For Mark, Jesus was from Nazareth only (1.9;1.24; 10.47; 14.67; 16.6). Mark believed that Jesus was a historical person, since he was a child of Mary (6:3). No virgin birth, no census, no wise persons, just an adult Jesus who told parables, overran the Temple, and killed by the State.

John

John’s Gospel written around 90 CE was the last canonical Gospel to be written (many other Gospels were written after). It breaks with the Synoptic Gospels in many aspects. Bypassing the fact that all the major events in Jesus life do not occur (Baptism, Last Supper, Parables); John clearly denies that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. In John 7:40-44, it reads

When they heard these words, some in the crowd said, ‘This is really the prophet.’ Others said, ‘This is the Messiah.’ But some asked, ‘Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?’ So there was a division in the crowd because of him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

This text pointedly shows that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem instead Galilee. Usually, the author of John explains theologically why s/he wrote such things, but not this time. Scholars believe that John had access to the Synoptic Gospels while writing the text, yet s/he blatantly ignores the Bethlehem birth narratives. My best guess is that Johannine community had divisions among themselves as to where Jesus was born and no one knew it for certain.

Nativity Scene Icon

These Christian Testament writers had no affiliation with the birth narratives. They either left them out or ignored them. The Christian Tradition still holds onto the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives and celebrate them every year by acting them out in churches, displaying nativity scenes and reading them aloud in church. For the next post we will closely look at those narratives and learn of their political, social, and historical situations.

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