Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Brief Reflection on Justice & Deconstruction

To summarize what I've read about Derrida, deconstruction, and justice, just because I'm thinking about it right now (and this began for you, but is turning out to be more for me): Justice does not deconstruct. Jusitce is not law. Law should reach for justice, but being a thing written or spoken, it deconstructs. Justice is not giving someone what they deserve--those who have it coming--but rather giving to those who do not have (it coming, or do not have justice, or simply lack). And since it is a giving, justice becomes practicing or offering a/the gift. Some gifts--not true gifts--presume an economy. I give you a gift and I know you will eventually want to give me a gift in return, making the gift not so much a gift, but an exchange (even though we call them gifts in our culture). The true gift is one in which you cannot presume this economy. You give to those who do not have (it coming, or do not have justice, or simply lack). When you give a gift to them, you cannot receive in return because they do not have anything to exchange.

And that is justice--giving true gifts.

Because once someone is given a gift, they no longer lack what was given, justice changes. New gifts are given. And this is why laws deconstruct and lack justice, because they assume a singulairty, one "gift" given over and over again to the same person, like buying 25 of the same turtlenecks and giving one each year to the same person, beginning when the person is 17. The person moves to a warmer climate, styles change, and so does the person's body. Even if these things did not change, the turtleneck is not warn after a year and a re-gifting of the same gift is superfluous.

Justice, in another sense, is deconstruction, an opening up to future possibilities. It is, at least, tantamount to or in the same family as deconstruction.

I like this understanding, because it gives a different understanding to blind lady justice and her scales. If lady justice is blind, it is because she does not judge the person to whom she gives, but gives to all who need. And her scales weigh what one does not have, so she can give.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

War is Never Just War: a Peace Prize, Afghanistan, and Trevar's Musings

Obama Defends War as He Picks up Nobel Peace Prize:

When receiving his Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama was on the defense, since he only days ago decided to send 30,000 soldiers to Afghanistan. He said, "the use of force [was] not only necessary but morally justified."

Later he cited precedence: "A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince al-Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms."

Just war. That's what people like Obama call this morally justified war. War is never just war--it is always more and it is never morally justified. Perhaps it is necessary at times, although I'm not fully convinced, but it is never morally justified. Sometimes "right" and "wrong" are not options and I imagine engaging in WWII could have been one of those times, only because "right" and "morally justified" options were continually passed over. The USA could have taken the Jewish people from harm. Diplomacy and non-violence does wonders when you don't wait until it is too late. And I imagine diplomacy and innovative non-violence could do amazing things if we tried.

Now those efforts would be Nobel worthy--innovative, non-violent interaction with al-Qaeda (not to mention they would actually reflect the reasons Obama received the award). Maybe it would produce martyrs on our side. I would rather see martyrs than "civilian casualties minimised." Perhaps al-Qaeda would understand us more if we sacrificed ourselves instead of the lives of US teenagers and innocent, Afghani civilians. Perhaps we would understand ourselves more.

War is never just war or a just war.

The War on Christmas: Happy Holidays, Readers

Watching The Colbert Report tonight, I was reminded of what some people in the media talking about a "war on Christmas," a term so prevalent it has its own wikipedia page.

Soldiers in the war against Christmas say, "Happy Holidays," don't want Christmas decorations in public places, and fight against Christmas parties, opting instead for "winter" parties, if anything. These holiday terrorists are sweeping the "reason for the season" under the carpet, marking out "Christ" with a big "X."

They win battles every year, these secular militants. Imagine what winter will be like if the other side wins the war. Christmas will not be the only one hurting; the economy will get quite the blow, too. Christmas decorations will become a thing of the past. Reacting against the change to political correctness, Christians will no longer hang lights on their house. Instead they will resort to reflecting the light of Christ. Good Christians would also stray from buying "Festivus" gifts (as Seinfeld would say), letting the world know their identity by their love, not their toys. In fact, their only gifts will be the gifts of the Spirit.

Advent might gain popularity in the church as Christians reflect on and live their faith in preparing for Christmas instead of jumping straight into Black Friday, Cyber Monday, and gaudy displays of electricity bills. God forbid we consider the feelings of others by separating church and economy in an act of love.

Christians might even stop being charitable only during Christmas. Perhaps the Salvation Army is part of the war on Christmas, as their kettles could be full without the silver bells on the city sidewalks. Instead of loving and being charitable around Christmas, Christians would embody agape year round.

This war only fights against the Christmas that hasn't reflected the reason for the season in years.

Happy Holidays, friends.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Drawing Lines & Finding Balance: Why I Won't Pursue a Philosophy Degree

Today I was reading a book, which may come as no surprise to you. However, I haven't been reading much lately, at least, not books in English. I've been translating Greek and Hebrew, reading blogs, and listening to music (which took the place of reading while I exercised, the largest, regular time I had been taking for reading). But today was cold and rainy, and I was too lazy to walk to the gym. So, I sat to read.

I am reading about ethics and deconstruction, which probably also doesn't come as much of a surprise. The author started going through a bunch of philosophers, summarizing a deconstructive aspect of their work with catchy phrases. I am familiar with all of the people on the list, although I have read very little from any of them, if anything. I felt impotent within the conversation. I cannot dialogue with people about Kant, Levinas, Hegel, and Kierkegaard, among others, when I have so little first-hand knowledge of them. And if the deconstructive conversation so often turns to them, how can I talk about deconstruction?

My solution was to seek a philosophy degree, because you cannot learn about anything without having a degree, right? I don't need the degree, but I could benefit from the classes, students, and professors for accountability and as dialogue partners. And I enjoy philosophy.

But I can't get a degree in everything. And I can't study everything, especially if I plan to be a socially active person--"social" connoting friendships and justice. Where do I draw the line between what is necessary and what is beyond my scope?

This line is a recurrent problem in my life. In order for the kingdom to come, so many things need to be done, just as there are so many things to study. Where do I draw the line between my areas of justice and areas I must leave to others? Where do I draw the line between taking care of myself and overindulging in leisure?

Maybe it is a God problem. I want to know everything, be everything, do everything. I want to go beyond all of my human limitations and be like God. Isn't that desire what all Christians want? To be like God? To be part of the Messiah, the body of Christ?

It is for me, at least. And I seek another line, this one between accepting my human limitations and pushing on, reaching to embody God's power--whether you call it Christ or Spirit.

How did Jesus manage it? According to John's Gospel, not so easily. He didn't want to settle for death on a cross. I think he wanted to establish justice in his lifetime, to rid the world of oppression, and foster love in the hearts of everyone. As the story goes, he prayed so hard against the cross that he sweat drops of blood.

He accepted his human limitations with just the cross and God gave him the resurrection. (Yes, I think Jesus went to the cross like Abraham went to sacrifice his son and like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego went to the fiery furnace--without knowing what would happen next, whether they would be delivered or not.) But how did Jesus go about finding his limitations? How did he decide to take a ministry to the cross instead of to Rome? (Yes, I am assuming Jesus did not have to die and God did not require Jesus' blood.)

I still don't have an answer. But I'm OK looking--or, I try to be, since I guess I have to be--no matter how aimless and anxious I might get in the process.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Messianic Vision (Sermon Delivered 11/15/09)

A rabbi was invited to speak to a class of Christian students. One of the students, asked the rabbi why he didn't think Jesus was the messiah. "Your scriptures," he told the rabbi, "prophesy about a messiah in very particular ways, all of which Jesus fulfills. He is the suffering servant of Isaiah. He was born of a virgin. He was of the tribe of David, born in Bethlehem. He was preceded by Elijah in John the Baptist. He performed many miraculous signs, healing the sick and forgiving sins. He took his iniquities upon him when he hung on the cross. And he rose from the dead, conquering the grave. And you're a religious man, certainly you can't say our scriptures are false, but yours are true. Why don't you believe in Jesus?"

The rabbi went to the window and pointed out it at nothing in particular. In a truly rabbinic fashion he told the students to look out the window and asked, "What do you see?" I don't know what those students saw out that window, but I can tell you what is out there today. I see leaves drying up and falling. I see cars that emit noxious gases from fuels purchased with blood money. I see a beat up, old house falling apart.

The rabbi would tell us we see things dying. In this world, growth leads to death as much as death leads to growth. What we see is the cycle of life and death and it has always been. The only thing to alter this cycle, the rabbi would say, will be messiah.

But we believe in Jesus, friends, the messiah has come and has altered the cycle of life and death. But look around you. What do you see? How can we say life and death no longer work like they used to when they work just like they always have? If Jesus is the messiah why is there still death? sin? war? oppression? poverty? suffering of every kind? Where are the signs of the messiah?

The rabbi doesn't believe in Jesus, but he wants the same thing we want and struggles with the same things, friends. We all want God's kingdom established on this earth, for love to reign, and all evils to cease. And even if Jesus as the Messiah is what separates us from religious Jews, both groups must address why this world is the way it is. Jews deal with evil in light of God's existence and the absence of a messiah whereas we deal with evil in light of God's existence through the arrival, departure, and delayed second-arrival of our messiah.

I don't know exactly how to deal with this problem. I pretend not to solve the issue. I don't use the pulpit to give answers, but to collaborate. I offer you a perspective and hope we can all engage with it personally and collectively, in words and deeds. Let us pray.

Jesus spoke to this issue of looking around for messianic signs. He said people looking for a sign and said they would only receive the sign of Jonah. Of the three times Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah, one time he gives no explanation of what it means.

Another time he compares Jonah's three days and nights in a fish to the three days and nights Jesus will be in the grave. In order to talk more about this connotation, I would like to invite the children to come up and we'll talk about Jonah.

At this point, I told the story of Jonah being swallowed by a fish. I don't think I can represent this part of the sermon without the kids. To summarize though, we decided you cannot get away from God. Jonah was on a boat, but God found Jonah. Jonah went into the sea and God found him. Jonah was in a fish and God heard him. Jesus was on a cross, but God found him in the grave.

The last time, Jesus mentions the sign of Jonah, he says he will be a sign just as Jonah was a sign to Nineveh. This third correlation reaches to a part of Jonah with which many of us are unfamiliar, because it has nothing to do with a fish, although it is just as fishy.

The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. And Jonah began to go into the city one day’s journey. And he cried out and he said, “Yet 40 days and Ninevah is overturned.” And the people of Ninevah trusted in God and they called a fast and put on sackcloth, the young and the old, the rich and the poor. And the word reached to the king of Ninevah and he arose from his throne and removed his cloak. And he covered [himself] in sackcloth and sat upon the ash. And he cried out and said in Ninevah: “From the decree of the king and his great ones, saying, let neither human nor beast, neither herd nor flock, let them not taste of anything; let them neither graze nor drink water. And let the people and animals cover themselves [with] sackcloth and let them cry mightily unto God and let each turn from their evil ways and from the violence that [is] in their hands. Who knows? God might repent, be sorry, and turn from that burning anger so that we will not perish.” And God saw their deeds, because they turned from their evil ways and God was sorry about the intended evil, so God did not do it. Jonah 3:1-10 (1-4 RSV; 5-10, my translation)

"Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown"? Not really the most eloquent of sermons, the message leaves a little bit to be desired. No hope. No call to repentance. Why even deliver the message? Why give the Ninevites a timeline? Since when is the God of Israel--Jonah's God and our God--a sadist? Certainly God didn't want the Ninevites to run around town panicking for forty days as they await their ineluctible doom. I wonder, did Jonah really deliver the whole message and nothing but the message God gave him? Or does the book give us a summary of what Jonah said?

When we read the story closely, we see the book continually leaves out details, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps in the story, a technique very familiar to any narrative, fiction and nonfiction, biblical or not. So I can't imagine God sent Jonah only to bring news of destruction. I have no reason to think the Jonah in this story said exactly those words. Whatever Jonah said, I doubt it was all rainbows and butterflies. But in spite of the depressing, imprecatory feelings we get from the story, the Ninevites held out hope.

After one day of a depressing message, the whole city somehow manages to repent. Ignoring how ridiculously fast the message traveled, I wonder what exactly compelled them to believe? What compelled them to fast and wear sackcloth?

Or, here's an even better question: Why did they make the animals fast and wear sackcloth? Was their too much gossip in the barnyard? Too much oppression? Maybe the white sheep continued a residual racism against the black sheep. Maybe the bulls wouldn't associate with the steers. And surely the ostriches were ostracized.

Cheesy puns aside, God's reaction is crazier than the animals being forced to fast and wear sackcloth because of a message of destruction from an angry prophet who was just vomited up from a large fish after being tossed into the ocean and left for dead by a group of sailors who thought the God of Israel would stop a storm if they tried to drown some guy who paid to get on their boat in order to flee from the divine presence.

God's reaction is so revolutionary, because the Hebrew tradition was pretty straightforward about how to repent and be favored by God. First, you had to be chosen, which by Jonah's time meant you had to be an Israelite. You had to obey the law, be circumcised, and engage in worship that focused on one God whose glory was represented in a temple in Jerusalem. The Ninevites likely had little knowledge of Israel's covenant relationship with God outside of stereotypes and misunderstandings and they likely stayed ignorant of that relationship and the subsequent laws. Instead of following the laws and repenting the way God demanded of Israel, they simply believed God, which means they believed the words Jonah spoke on behalf of God, they didn't "believe in God" in the turn of phrase we toss about today. They only repented of what their consciences demanded and God still accepted their repentance. And Jonah got madder than a hornet in response, as we find out in chapter 4.

But chapter three is why Jesus reached back to Jonah. Jonah was a messianic sign to Nineveh, a sign of a God whose love is greater than our sin. And Jonah got so mad because he knew God's love was boundless. If Jonah brought a message of salvation to anyone, he wanted it to be to his own people. But despite his efforts, Jonah becomes like a messiah to Nineveh, being God's voice to them, a voice followed by love, acceptance, and forgiveness: that's salvation, friends.

Both times Jesus explains the sign of Jonah, he also says, "and now one greater than Jonah is here." Jesus calls himself similar to Jonah in making a comparison, but also greater than Jonah. Which reminds me: according to the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. [Those ones] will do even greater things than these" (John 14:12).

If Jesus is greater than Jonah and we who have faith will do things greater than Jesus, then right now many greater than Jonah are here. I see a whole room full of people greater than Jonah, people empowered by Christ to be like Christ.

Isn't this what we mean when we call ourselves part of the body of Christ, that we, together, are the presence of Christ in this world? Friends, if we have faith in Jesus, we will also be messiah.

And this perspective isn't terribly different from that of the rabbi I spoke of earlier. Many Jews remember God telling Abraham he would become a blessing, which means Abraham would be so blessed that he would bless others. So many Jewish people aim to bless this world in their actions. In the absence of messiah, they are God's means of blessing the whole earth and all that is in it.

We, too, see problems in the world and realize it is our job to change the world, to establish God's kingdom on this earth. In the physical absence of our messiah, we, too, become messiah. And when we look out the window with our messianic vision, we see some pretty ridiculous things. Where some see death, we see life. That run down house may be falling apart, but inside, it houses a great amount of food to feed the hungry who come to this church on Mondays and Thursdays. The house may be dying, but we're using it for life.

When we look out the window with our messianic vision, we see life, but don't expect death to turn the corner. I think Christians are pretty famous for not seeing death. For how long have Christians prayed the Lord's prayer or recited the Apostles' creed? How long have Presbyterians worshiped in a structured, liturgical form? Any level-headed person would have expected these things to die long, long ago. But we look at the liturgy, add some music in a style born in the 60s and 70s, call it contemporary, use some powerpoint and voila, we have really brought some sort of new life where death should happen. I don't understand how, but it is working. And I love it. We hear the statistics about how many churches and denominations have waning numbers, but we see life around us here this morning and know, somehow, the Church will continue despite the statistics--with or without the liturgy--so that the life we foster in here will bring life out there. The church isn't about what goes on in here, it is about what we do out there.

And this messianic vision is hard to maintain. As a "lighter" example, I've taken up sewing so I could keep these jeans alive and somedays I wonder if it is all for naught. I've got the money to buy a new pair, but the minute I do, I'm using my financial blessings to acknowledge death, not life. We all know there are so many other things I could do with money than support the cycle of life and death. And even if I do buy a pair of jeans, somebody could use them a lot more than I could.

Please don't misunderstand me church, I'm not suggesting we are not part of Christ's body if we buy a new pair of jeans or a new sofa. I obviously buy new things, as you see on my face. I share my sewing story, because one story can prompt another. And stories prompt ideas. In this world, life is birthed from death, but if I tell you my story and you are inspired, then newness was birthed not from death, but from other newness. Life begets life; not dog eat dog.

Besides, it isn't for me to judge precisely what you should and should not do with your blessings. Remember, I don't give answers from the pulpit. Instead, I share so we can work together. And I suggest we maintain a messianic vision of newness and life without death and obsolescence. For me, that newness means sewing patches on my jeans until I look like a slob, while those around me wear nice things--even in church, because one day somebody might come into this congregation who cannot afford nice clothes and I want them to feel just as comfortable as the visitors who come in dressed to the nines. And although my clothes look like they're dying, inside I am alive, because Jesus lives in me, because I am a part of the messiah.

But I can only be a part of the messiah with you. We can only do it together. I'm going to sew patches on my jeans and eat food with the hungry, food I get from that house over there.

What are you going to do? And I say "you" not to exclude myself or accuse you, but rather to emphasize the individual aspect. Like Jonah and Jesus are you going to bring God's love to the most surprising of peoples? Who would it surprise you to find God loving? Who would you be mad for God to love? A specific person? Someone of a certain religion? Someone of another race, ethnicity, nationality, skin tone, language, or sexuality? Those of another political party? People who use words we don't use? Those with a certain amount of money--rich or poor? Maybe people whose sins are not your sins--thieves, murderers, sexual offenders? People who don't believe what you do, do things you don't do, or approve things of which you don't approve? Are you going to see them with a messianic vision? A vision that forces you to look past stereotypes? Are you going to see them as God sees them, as God's beloved?

And what are we going to do together? Alone we can only do so much. I can sew poorly and eat with the hungry while you heal the sick and give money to the poor. But together, friends--together we can do things greater than what Jesus did, because together we are who is greater than Jonah. Together we can establish the kingdom of God on this earth.

It is a "messianic age [and] we are a messianic people." The time for the kingdom is now and the place for it is everywhere. "It is found every time an offense is forgiven, every time a stranger is made welcome, every time an enemy is embraced, every time the least among us is lifted up, every time the law is made to serve justice, every time a prophetic voice is raised against injustice, every time the law and the prophets are summed up by love" (John Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?).

We must neither faint nor be crushed until we have established justice in the earth (Is. 42:1-4). We must do our small things--sewing patches and volunteering, serving each other and serving those who will never ever step inside this building. And together we must do great things, tirelessly breaking down systems of oppression and liberating the peoples under them.

We will neither grow faint nor be crushed until we have established justice in the earth. Friends, that's what we, the church, do together. Jesus didn't complete justice when he walked on this earth, but he is doing it now with and through us.

Our task remains before us: to love and establish justice through our individual and corporate lives. I'm going to start by sewing patches and eating with the hungry. But I want to do more. I know other people here want to do more, to see their little things be multiplied like loaves and fishes. They don't just want to help serve large meals to people who don't need to be served, especially when benevolences are cut in the church's budget every year. It isn't that they don't want to serve these meals, but that they want more--they want to take the life in this church and move it into the streets instead of waiting for the streets to come in here, because, let's face it. The streets aren't going to come to us. Like Jonah and Jesus, we have to go to them.

I've heard the voices of people in this church, like voices crying out in the wilderness, searching for something more and for God. I've heard their voices like the labor pains of something great being birthed in them.

Share with me and others the stories of your messianic vision and your messianic actions. You aren't the only person in this church who wants more but doesn't know how to do it. You aren't the only one struggling with the pains of birthing Christ in your life. You aren't the only one who needs to motivate and be motivated, to inspire and be inspired to more.

Now look out the window.

Look around you.

Tell me what you see.


A prayer:

God, in your mercy accept our offerings to your purpose and our self-sacrifices to you--swallow us into the innards of your love and spew us out to take your kingdom everywhere in this world.


Go and be aware of what surrounds you. Look at it with messianic vision and tell your sisters and brothers what you see, so together we can use life to birth life and we can refresh each other and neither grow faint nor weary until we establish love and justice all around us. In the name of the Holy Parent, the Holy Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Christian" License Plates (It Starts Judgmental, but Turns)

Apparently a few groups in South Carolina are trying to pass some of those specialty plates (or "tags") for cars. You know, the license plates that shout "I like this," "I support this," or, "I'm one of these." These tags beg people to judge you before they meet you. People already judge you by your car, but they have more matter for judgment if your license plate says "United We Stand, "No More Homeless Pets," "NASCAR," "Nurses Care," or "In God We Trust."

Oops, my bias is showing.

Really, these plates are little different from wearing clothes with words on them. Tacky or not, the plates are quite the rage among diverse peoples, many states having hundreds from which to choose. Recently a South Carolina vetoed a Christian plate, apparently similar to one a group in Florida also tried to pass.

As you probably know, these plates cost more and the extra money goes to some organization. I only read a few articles on the South Carolina plate and did not find out to whom the money would go. It sounds like the Florida plate would fund Christian schools.

In all three of the articles I read (Slow down your research Trevar! Three articles?), the slant was separation of church and state. A government plate with a religious message. Government funds side-by-side with religious funds. I do see a potential issue with separation of church and state, which is a good thing, if memory serves me correctly. My soap box has little to do with history and legislation though. I'll let you think about church and state before and after Constantine, before and after the protestant reformation, and before and after the settling of the Americas.

My beef (or eggplant, if you prefer) is with the plate and the people pushing it forward.

If memory serves me correctly, Jesus told us to carry the cross. He didn't tell us to put a small cross on wheels and lead it around town. He told us to carry it. And let's be honest, if we don't read that text metaphorically, then we need to be so religiously and politically revolutionary that everyone--not "the Jews," not "the Romans," but everyone--will kill you on a tree, lynched, crucified, or otherwise. Maybe this "less" metaphorical interpretation isn't such a bad one, after all.

If we put crosses or the "I Believe" message on our cars, we damn-well better be the best, most conscientious, and nice driver ever (please don't be offended by my use of "damn," I thought it a very apt word in this instance, drawing on the curse as referring to a judgmental God who damns people). Jesus didn't cut people off, hold people up by driving too slow, drive too fast because he was late, or fail to let people go ahead of him. And let's not even think about driving gas-guzzlers or a car so nice that it draws attention to our economic status. If the cross has anything to do with economics, it is not with privilege. Also, let's start picking up hitchhikers, offering people rides, and paying for all the gas when we let people borrow our cars.

And if we believe in the "cause" that plate would financially promote, why don't we just give money? We are asked to give without expecting anything in return (Luke 6:30-36 ... yeah, that's straight from the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible). We give time and money and don't expect t-shirts, license plates, or time and money. If we get those things, fine. Take them and be glad. But we do not need to be conned into giving money to a good cause if it is a good cause.

Separation of church and state is a good, big issue about which to be concerned, but it isn't the whole story. And even though I don't wear (what I judge) pithy sayings on my person, I am far from being the audience of this judgmental blog.

Buying Christianity cheapens grace. We all do it. I have a Project (RED) t-shirt. I give money to the organized church I attend--money that comes back to me in the form of comfortable chairs, air conditioning (and occasionally heat), electricity, water, soap, paper towels, a janitor, coffee and donuts, the upkeep on pianos and a beautiful organ.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be (Matthew 6:21). For better or worse, our hearts are tied to our wallets. Sometimes we send our wallets to test the water. And perhaps our hearts never follow the treasure.

Sometimes I don't even send my wallet. I, too, cheapen grace, day by day.

Forgive us, O Lord, for we have sinned. Have mercy on us in the form of inspiration to jump into love with heart and wallet.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Local Soup Kitchen Serves Theology

Oh how often we go to serve and end up receiving service.

My church has a food ministry affectionately called "Soup Kitchen," although I haven't seen them serve soup. I've been going for about a month and have learned a lot. I often stand on a soap box (at least to preach at myself) about the growing theological divide in the church. I'm not talking about the much discussed divide between the church and the academy (aka, Jerusalem and Athens). Rather, I'm talking about the divide between the rich and the poor.

Friends, alongside the broccoli casserole, chicken pot pie, and store-made desserts, they're serving theology at that soup kitchen.

This last week I saw an older lady linger by the trash cans. My attention was focused on the people with whom I was eating; my peripherals paid her little attention. DJ had a heaping plate of seconds that he could not finish, so he got up to throw it away. At least, I think he intended to throw it out.

Instead of tossing the food in the garbage, he gave it to the lady lingering by the garbage. Maybe she asked for it. Maybe he offered it. Either way, he handed it and she took it. I saw her tip the plate over and let all of the food fall into her plastic bag. The ham, broccoli salad, and cole slaw slid off the plate into a gooey conglomeration in a plastic, grocery bag.

I wonder who else's leftovers were in that bag. Did she have any way to keep the food cold or secure from the bacteria we tupperware-laden people fear? How long did she have to carry that bag before she could set it down? Did she have anywhere to take it?

If my theology doesn't affect her life, then it is all for nought, my friends. We can argue about orthodoxy, the trinity, and The Shack until we're blue in the face, but time is running out on whether or not we can help people like that lady. I care about the theology that matters to her. The kind of theology that tells me to serve her food and keep her warm. The kind of theology that tells me to be Christ to her--which means to do Christ-like things to her, which means to eat with her, be her friend, and judge her not.

"Let him who is without sin cast the first stone," Jesus said.

The only stone Jesus cast was a word of a loving, unconditional forgiveness.


Last week I also made the acquaintance of DJ and Shanika. We are probably about the same age and the young couple really warmed up to me and my friend Dave, who are a good 40 years younger than the next youngest volunteer. DJ was rubbing Shanika's belly and told me, with a grin as large as Cheshire cat's, that she was pregnant. Shanika turned and looked so proud and so fulfilled. Their young joy gave a new meaning to the cliché, "living on love."

Those two loved kids. They already have two young ones and they separately asked me and Dave if we had any. In their struggles to stay afloat, I imagine love really is what keeps them going--loving and being loved in return.

DJ also told us he was glad for his younger brother who was going into the marines. He wanted his brother out of this life and into the marines. I want to cry about how right DJ's desire might be. As a young man in Shelby, DJ's could easily have a life of poverty and gang violence in his life. DJ's brother could learn from the streets how to be violent and kill or he could learn it in the marines, where at least he would have plentiful food, health care, and the opportunity to go to college.

I'm not sure DJ's brother had the luxury of making a right decision. Perhaps he could get out of gang violence, but I am no one to judge, not being in his shoes. And how could he pass up food, shelter, health, and education, even if it means selling his body to the warring capitalist system? With little sight of a "right" decision, ethics is out the window.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Loaves and Fishes

The Feeding of the 4000. The Feeding of the 5000. The Miracle of the Five Loaves and Two Fishes. The Miracle of the Seven Loaves and Fishes. The Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. "The sign that he had done" (John 6:14). Or whatever you want to call it.

Matthew 14:13-21; 15:32-38
Mark 6:31-44; 8:1-10
Luke 9:10-17
John 6:1-15

Either or 4000 or over 5000 people were listening to Jesus. Jesus wanted them to be fed. Sometimes the disciples wanted the people to eat. Sometimes Jesus wanted them to eat. In every story but the one in John, the disciples had food, just not much. Every time it was bread and fish.

Jesus prays over the food and breaks the bread, and the disciples give the food out. Everyone eats. Food is left over. The disciples gather that food and have more than they started with. In every telling but John 6, that's the end of the story. In John, the narrator says, "When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, 'This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.'"

Only two of the stories said the people had nothing to eat (Mark 8 and Matthew 15 ). And maybe none of the people had any food, except for that boy who only appears in John's account. And the disciples, of course. With well over 4000 people in both situations, I'm unsure how the disciples would know whether or not people had any food.

None of the stories say Jesus multiplied the food. John calls it a sign, even though he doesn't call the very next story a sign, the story of Jesus walking on the water. I'm not saying no miracle occurred, but I want to work with a different interpretation for a moment. I mean, even those who believe differently than us have fruitful thoughts, don't they?

I don't know if I heard it in a sermon or in class or read it in a book. Regardless of its source, some people think the "miracle" here is a moral one, not a physical one. These people say the disciples and/or a young boy started handing out bread and fish, which inspired other to give out of their abundance. They presume other people had food, but the disciples didn't know about it. Jesus was wise though.

In these interpretations, Jesus didn't multiply loaves and fishes, but caring and sharing. I don't know who is right, because the text does not tell us. Either interpretation, what a miracle!


I lamented to a friend the other day. I told him I only had small ideas, but big goals. I want to cure AIDS, but I only have a box band-aids and lips for kissing boo-boos.

"Loaves and fishes," he said. (Actually, he might have said, "loaves and fish." I like "fishes.")

I can't end homelessness or poverty or racism or sexism or bigotry or hypocrisy or oppression or people's aversion to deconstruction.

I can't do it; a trip to Miami solves no problems.
You can't do it; smiling to someone at the DMV doesn't fix anything.

But I've got a few loaves in the shape of a trip to Miami. You've got some fish for a smile. Together, we could feed a few. And with the Bread of Life at work, we're going to see others sharing their loaves and fishes. We're inspired by Jesus to share and sharing that inspiration.

Hunger will be no more when God does multiplication.

Loaves and fishes, friends.
Loaves and fishes.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Reflections Hebrews 13: Jesus' Death Against Politics & For Love Withour Borders, The Sacrifice of Sharing, and Gay Marriage

"For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name." Hebrews 3:11-15

Atonement happened inside the sanctuary, but the leftovers went outside and were burnt. They were unclean; even the people burning the carcasses had to wash before entering the city (Lev. 16:27).

Hebrews tells us Jesus was sacrificed outside the city, where the unclean things happened. The language of "city" and "camp" separates the reforming remnant of the Israelite religion from the increasingly civil "religion." Hebrews separates Jesus from the politics of the city, from the politico-ethno-centricism surrounding Zion, because Jesus died outside the city in order to sanctify "the people" (ton laov, for you Greek readers out there). The people. Not the Judaeans. Not the Israelites. Not the "Jews." The people. Especially those outside the city. The ones who get dirty.

And what did Jesus do to sanctify them? He died. Done. Sanctification achieved. Sanctification specifically achieved for those who did nothing to deserve it but exist.

No, "get a job, then I'll die for you."
No, "clean up your life, then I'll become a living sacrifice for you."
No, "move to a safer area, be more like me, and then I'll die for you."

And what are we to do? Likewise.

Love without reserve.
Love without borders.


"Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God." Hebrews 13:16

Share. And remembered the preceding verses? The ones about "the people," those outside the city? Those who are not part of the politico-ethico-religion inside the city? That is, those who aren't "Jews," or, in our case, Christian? Share with them, too.

There are different kinds of living sacrifices. Sharing is just one of them.


The following is a bit judgmental. Please forgive my tone. Don't forgive the love that boiled into a bit of anger.

In Light of Maine's Recent "Defeat" of Gay Marriage

Consider Hebrews 13:4: "Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers." None of us can lay aside our biases, as much as we would like to. Therefore, I am not "objective" in my reading of this passage in light of Maine's recent vote on gay marriage.

But my bias on gay marriage doesn't matter right now. If you think homosexual couples are defiling the marriage bed by being homosexual, then your reading of a verse like Hebrews 13:4 says why you should be concerned: for love of the homosexuals. The author of Hebrews wants no one to be judged by God and therefore tells people to keep the marriage bed holy.

If you think homosexuality is wrong and you care for homosexuals, why place your concern in the ballot? Let's be honest, homosexuals are going to have sex whether you let them get married or not. Sex is marriage in the Bible, friends. When Jacob met Rebekah at the end of Genesis 24, he took her into a tent and they became married when they copulated. The only marital bed you can keep holy is your own. If you are concerned about the judgment of homosexuals--which means you care about the homosexuals, actively--then you need to befriend homosexuals. Really befriend them. Friendships don't start off with judgments, by the way.

After you love GLBT persons, then go to the voting booth. What will you accomplish there, anyways?

What Could You Leave?

As many of us are wont to do, I'm thinking about when Jesus asked that man to sell everything he had and give the money to the poor (btw, I don't understand why Jesus didn't suggest that man give some of his nice things to the poor) (also, it is late and I'm not going to look up references, but I'm pretty sure this one story occurs in multiple gospels).

I am glad many of us contemplate this story so often, even if it is so seldom pleasant, if it is ever pleasant. Just as each baby is a unique human, so does each spiritual birth yield something new and being born again means something different for each of us (note, the born-again story only occurs in John 3). I am not born again the same way you are, even if we both said the same "sinner's prayer" when we were in VBS so many years ago.

Like rebirth, we probably all won't respond to this story in the same way. I'm not sure many stories are meant to be applied to every human being in the same way. I cannot tell you to sell everything, because I haven't. But, I most definitely will not advise you against it. Anyways ...

The Jesus of the gospels asks people to leave a lot of things, from family to possessions. I was wondering, what would be some of the hardest things to leave, if God "asked" you?

First and foremost, it would hard for me to leave the people I love. I mean, it is hard enough to by spatially distant from people, let alone truly and indefinitely absent from them. Although, I guess sometimes we do have to leave people in a sense, when they die or disappear.

Next would be my laptop and my saxophone. Probably my laptop would be harder, because it allows me to communicate, write, and read. I could give up my books. I probably won't even bring them all with me when I move from Boiling Springs. But my laptop? That would be rough. And I don't even play that saxophone very often, but I love her so much. It is nice to just know she is there and know she'll sing with me, no matter how much I neglect her.

Oh, and somewhere in this top three, I need to include food or access to food. I mean, I "go hungry" sometimes, but I'm a fan of eating. Some people drink, others smoke, different ones take drugs, and still others have different addictions--from sex to cutting. I enjoy food. Taste is a gift from God, my friends. And, friends, since I like almost every food, I have been blessed!

What's your top three?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Highlights from Goodman E-mails

I scrolled randomly to a point in my e-mail inbox, just wasting time. I happened across a few e-mails from Dr. Goodman and then searched for all of our correspondence so I could share with all of you, some highlights. A little later, I would really like to share some interactions we had in an on-line forum Dr. Goodman organized for one of our classes (a class Dr. Goodman tried hard to convince me to take, as you'll read below).

After reading through these, I'm not sure I'll delete many more e-mails.


10/10/07, 3PM

"Students usually want to talk and they learn better when they interact with the subject. But if discussions are poorly framed and overly broad (e.g., “What do you think about that?” or “How do you feel about this?”) then they don’t really further our understanding all that much. The questions need to be tighter, more focused, and more purposeful, if that makes sense."

Goodman always asked good questions and always encouraged his students to do so. I still don't ask good questions, but I consistently try to reach his standards. This same e-mail reflected an amazing memory as Goodman referred multiple times to things I had said during class discussion, things I probably didn't even remember saying.


12/10/07 1:20PM

"Your total class participation grade for the semester (25% of your final course grade) is a 107 (outlandish, I know! But that’s the average for a 116 quiz average and a 98 seminar discussion average)."

Goodman gives extra-credit opportunities and always made a big deal about it when somebody received the extra credit, but obviously didn't need it. It amused me.


12/12/07 7:49AM

"Someday, when you’re universally hailed as the successor to Jacques Derrida, I’d like to be able to pull out my grade book from Fall ’07 and say, “Here’s what Mr. Genius did in my class oh so many years ago. Deconstruct this!”

And with that, I thrust my middle finger in the air…"

However, I'm sure he wouldn't thrust his middle finger in the air. What would his mother think?


12/13/07 8:06AM

"By the way, I saw Into the Wild last night. Do you know the story? You may have read the book (I haven’t). Fascinating. A 22 year-old young man graduates from Emory, sends his life’s savings to Oxfam, and quite intentionally disappears from his family to escape society. He spends a couple of years drifting west. His ultimate goal is to make it to Alaska to live off the land, which he does but with tragic consequences. It’s a true story, but I didn’t remember it (happened in 1992). Anyway, thought of you several times in the movie. Lots of literary and philosophical currents to it (more in the book, from what I’ve gathered; I came home and spent a couple of hours reading more about the story).

Hope you have a great Christmas. Are you heading to Maine ?"

A movie that made him think of me now makes me think of him. I'm not always sure what made him think of me, but I treasure the thought that it did. I remember being a bit surprised with the end of that e-mail. I was often pleasantly taken aback when Dr. G breached the professor-student relationship with words of friendship.


04/09/08 11:20AM

"Not sure if you've ever come across this group, but their monthly newsletter is always interesting and thought provoking. I'm not even clear about who they are--I think they're "progressive evangelicals." I'm impressed with how they engage culture, philosophy, and literature. And their stuff looks smart! So sorry to add another email to your inbox, but I thought you might be intrigued by this outfit (though this issue of their newsletter doesn't look as good as other issues have looked)."


04/10/08 8:51AM

"And I will remember earnestly in my prayers and best wishes (I don’t always differentiate between the two, you know?) in the days and weeks ahead. I promise. You’re a gifted guy and super-important to this community and to a lot of people in this community, myself being one of them. Anything that I can do to help share the burden, please know I’m more than willing to do so.

Blessings, friend."



08/04/08 11:19AM

"Hope you’re enjoying your summer—hard to believe we start it up again in just a couple of weeks, huh?!?

Any chance you’ve changed your mind about participating in the Jewish-Christian Relations Travel Study class this Fall? Never hurts to ask!


I’m hoping to finish the course syllabus this week and, while working on it, I thought I’d see if there was any possibility that you might reconsider and decide to join us for our week on the road in October. If not, I certainly understand. I ask not to bother you but only to indicate my confidence in how much you’d have to contribute to our experience."


After telling Dr. Goodman I would take the class ...

08/14/08 1:02PM

"Well, this is the best news I’ve heard all day! Glad you’re in and looking forward to your contributions to the class. If there’s anything I can do along the way to help, don’t hesitate to ask, ok?"


12/08/08 12:27PM

"Just a note about our final exam tomorrow night. I’d like to bypass a traditional exam or take-home writing assignment (you have done a decent amount of writing and reading this semester—I don’t really see the point in asking you to write-up rehearsals of material we’ve already covered just for the sake of a final exam assignment)."

Finals are often a waste of time. Goodman didn't waste time.


After we took the non-traditional final exam referenced in the previous e-mail ...

12/10/08 11:26AM

"The peer-grading for your final exam performance was, as you would guess, generous! One student who shall remain nameless wrote this note at the bottom of his/her grade sheet: “I can’t give anybody less than an ‘A.’ They all got up there and did the best they could.” Imagine a heart patient adopting that mindset with his heart surgeon, or an Olympic judge approaching her evaluation of a gymnast that way!! Some of you are just too nice for your own good!"

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Glad Game III

Every once and while, I take a cue from Pollyanna, thanks to a friend of mine, Ms. Jennifer Walker. Another friend, Ms. Jessica Heath, has tried to show me the benefits of this game, whether she knows it or not. So, today I'm taking the much needed time to play the glad game. Please, feel free to play along. To play, you just list things that make you glad. I write a little something-something about most of them, because it makes me even more glad.

1. The Wehmuellers. I went to the "early service" at my church today, the one with the "contemporary" music. I haven't been to that service very frequently since I started preparing for the fall semester at work. Two of the musicians are teenage brothers. Andrew plays the bass and Eric plays the drums. Eric and Andrew are pretty cool in my book. When they were done playing their music, they came at sat next to me. It made me feel super special.

2. Getting slapped on the knee by an man in his 70s. John Campbell is a retired pastor in my church and he has been attending the same small group I attend at church. We haven't interacted very much, which is probably largely the fault of my shy side. I haven't warmed up to everyone just yet, but I'm starting to. Tonight we interacted a little during the discussion time. Near the end, John was trying to summarize something he read in Romans 8. At the time, I couldn't recall what exactly he was talking about in Romans, but I thought I had picked up on what he was saying. When he was done, I said, "I like that. It's that born-again thing," and his face began to light up as I continued, "but not at one point, but your whole life." John shifted in his chair and slapped my knee, grunting a loud noise of approval, his face beaming. Another lady started speaking after, and although my gaze shifted towards her, I noticed John's eyes lingering at me, still pleased. At the next lull in the conversation, he told me I was the presence of God for him tonight, because I was listening to him and managed to capture what he was saying. I think I may have missed something in what he said that time or I simply didn't understand why he was so pleased, but it was enough just to see him so happy, to make the connection with hand and mind. It was beautiful. God touched each of us through the other.

3. Friends, of course! I think I've mentioned friends the last two times I played the glad game in the blogosphere. But they're just so awesome! Today I was fortunate enough to have a bunch of them accompany me to church, another joined me for lunch, and then a bunch came over and had a meeting in my apartment. Yesterday a few just stopped by to say hello. It was great. At this time in my life, these are the sorts of interactions I crave and I need. Sometimes you are blessed to look at a part of your life and say, "This is just what I need." Most of the time you can only utter that phrase when reflecting on the past. Sometimes, those times when joy surprises you, you can say it as it happens. I've been saying it a lot lately. Thanks, friends, whether I mentioned you by name or not.

4. My tattoo. I really like having my tattoo. I enjoy it when my shorts move just enough for my tattoo to sneak out and see the light. It makes me smile. I like art. I like art on me. I like being reminded I, too, am art.

5. Interpretive communities. Interpreting is fun. I think it is an art form. If not, it is at least part of the meaning-discovering (meaning-making?) process. Fun as it is to do sitting alone, working in community with authors, it is also great to interpret with people sitting in the same room. Lately, people have asked me some really good questions, causing me to think a lot. I like talking with those people about those questions, because we interpret life and texts together. How great to live in community! To investigate what is important to us and to bring our diverse and similar experiences and minds together! I've also really enjoyed this small group at my church. We're interpreting a lot together. I really enjoy being in community with people so much older than me. A couple of them aren't so much older, one is the same age, more or less, but three of them are a lot older. And they're offering a lot of life experience--and listening to me, too. It is awesome to respect and be respected by them. I love it.

6. Pandora. Pandora has let me love music I don't own. Modest Mouse, one of Dr. Goodman's favorites. Ingrid Michaelson. Norah Jones. Regina Spektor. Ben Folds. The Weepies. Jack Johnson. Sinatra. Ella Fitgerald. Louis Armstrong. John Coltrane. Coconut Records. The White Stripes.

7. T'ai chi.

8. Learning to love people and doing it.

9. Seeing beautiful people. Have I mentioned I have beautiful friends, beautiful acquaintances, beautiful family, and beautiful residents? How did I end up knowing so many good-looking people?

10. Sharing with my friends ten things that make me glad.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Sign of Jonah (Sermon 10/04/09)

Matthew 12:38-42, 16:1-4; Luke 11:29-32

The Sign of Jonah?

We're not talking political-rally signs. No signs saying "Vote for so-and-so for such-and-such."

We're not talking ASL.

We're talking a signifier signifying a signified. A reader interacting with a signifier to see how and what can be signified. The process of meaning, however (im)possible.

Words are signs. The word "sign" means different things, as just shown. Consider the word "literally," too. If I tell you all I "literally" ate a whole pie last night, you'll understand the signifier "literally" to mean I actually ate a whole pie. On the other hand, If I say, "I literally ate 20 million pies last night," then you're going to understand "literally" to mean quite the opposite of what it signified in the previous example. Signs don't always mean one thing. Sometimes they mean one thing or another. Sometimes they mean multiple things at the same time to different people.

Three times in the gospels, Jesus mentions the "sign of Jonah." And as the gospels are wont to do, none of these stories are the same. In two of these instances, Jesus is asked for a sign--something to point to Jesus' identity and mission. Each time the sign of Jonah is mentioned, it is surrounded by stories of a compassionate and teaching Jesus and stories evoking questions of Jesus' identity--is he of God or the devil?

The sign of Jonah is juxtaposed with these other signs, signs that reveal his glory, as the Gospel of John puts it (2:11). Although the sign of Jonah points to the same things these other signs point to, it is a different sort of sign as it specifically alludes to a book of the Bible whereas the other signs are provisions of food for the hungry, the healing of the lame and sick, the exorcism of the demon possessed, and such.

In Matthew 12, Jesus explains the sign of Jonah as foreshadowing his death and resurrection: "just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the son of man will be in the heart of the earth" (v. 40). But the sign of Jonah is not just about the fish.

In Luke, Jesus describes the sign a little differently. Jesus says, "just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the son of man will be to this generation" (11:30). Whereas Jesus actually explained the sign in Matthew, in Luke, he only complicates the matter further, comparing the sign of Jonah to the sign of the son of man.

Here and in Matthew, the sign of Jonah is somehow wrapped up with the people from Nineveh and their repentance. Jesus isn't telling us everything, expecting us to know more about the story of Jonah. So, let's take a deeper look by reading the whole story--it's short. Feel free to read along if you like. It's one of those small books near the end of the Old Testament: "... Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, ..." Don't be ashamed to look in the table of contents to help you find it.

As I read, pay attention to things that are weird. Jonah is a weird story, I think. I think we are drawn into the story of Jonah by being forced to explain things the story leaves unexplained--what I call filling in the gaps.

Read Jonah.

We've already heard an explanation from Matthew about the sign from the first half of Jonah's story, so I'm going to focus on the latter part of the story, which is just as fishy as the first if you ask me.

Why did Jonah deliver such a short, harsh message? The message in the book leaves a little bit to be desired. Did Jonah really deliver the whole message and nothing but the message that God gave him? Or does the book give us a summary of what Jonah said?

"Forty days and Nineveh is overturned!" Not really the most eloquent of sermons. No hope. No call to repentance. Why even deliver the message? Why give them a timeline? Since when is the God of Israel--Jonah's God and our God--a sadist? Certainly God didn't want the Ninevites to run around town panicking for forty days as they await their ineluctable doom.

I just can't imagine God sent Jonah only to bring news of destruction. Maybe Jonah didn't learn his lesson after the fish and doesn't say what God wants, or maybe the book emphasizes or summarizes Jonah's message. I don't know. But, whatever Jonah said, I doubt it was all rainbows and butterflies, but in spite of Jonah's message, God still held out hope for the Ninevites.

And so did the Ninevites. After one day of a depressing message, the whole city somehow manages to repent. I have no clue how word got to the whole town without someone tweeting, updating their facebook status, or taking the story to the weekend update. What exactly compelled them to believe? What compelled them to fast and wear sackcloth? Did their discomfort and hunger grab God's attention by proving their genuineness? Did it prove genuineness to the community, thus holding each other accountable? Maybe a little of both?

Here's a better question: Why did they make the animals fast and wear sackcloth? Was their too much gossip going on in the barnyard? Too much oppression? Maybe the white sheep were treating the black sheep according to some poor stereotypes. Maybe the bulls wouldn't associate with the steers. And surely the ostriches were ostracized.

Cheesy puns aside, God's reaction is crazier than animals being forced to fast and wear sackcloth because of a message of destruction from an angry prophet who probably smells like fish guts.

According to Hebrew scripture, repentance involves sacrifices and in order to be in God's favor you have to obey the law, be circumcised, and engage in worship at the temple. The Ninevites likely had little knowledge of Israel's covenant relationship with God and likely stayed ignorant of that relationship and the subsequent laws. And God still accepted their repentance. And boy did it make Jonah mad.

God wasn't bound by how Jonah read scripture, even the straightforward parts. Regardless of what Jonah thought, God knew about God's love. God knows everyone is redeemable. Despite God's love wasn't emphasized in Jonah's message, it was still given away freely and in abundance. It seems our God is a God who refrains from destroying the penitent, even when the penitent aren't even completely sure what they are repenting from and how to repent from it.

While Jonah preached hellfire and brimstone, God was singing, "Come just as you are." And brothers and sisters, let me tell you Jonah didn't like that hymn one bit. He was irate. He wanted Nineveh to be destroyed or at least to have to respond to God the same way Israel did. He didn't want to hear "come just as you are," he wanted to hear, "come just the way I asked Jonah and Israel to come."

In all this anger and bitterness, what kind of sign was Jonah to Nineveh? A sign of human judgment and nonacceptance? A sign of trying to put God into a theological box? A sign of reluctance to accept God's actions?

I hope not.

There must be more.

Yes, Jonah had a grudge against Nineveh, a grudge that somehow put him in an awkward situation. Nineveh was part of this empire that bullied Israel and eventually took them over, forcing the people to leave their homes. I don't think we can completely understand that sort of grudge today. Nations, empires, nationalism, and patriotism operate too differently for us to understand Jonah by comparing Israel to the US. For Jonah, his ethnicity was his citizenship and his religion. Being Hebrew meant being Israelite and being in a covenant with God. For us, ethnicity does not necessarily mean you're from the US and neither does it mean you are Christian. We have to get at Jonah another way.

I think Jonah was called to minister to those who had wronged both him and those he loved. And not just those who wronged him and those he loved. He was called also to those he associated with them--people who did nothing wrong but be born who Ninevites. Jonah was sent to those who validated a stereotype and those who simply wore the label.

It's like God calling us to minister to any group of people we judge based on a stereotype. Since I don't know any of you, I can't say who is your Nineveh. And even if I knew you, it isn't my place to judge. But knowing qualities of Nineveh, I can give a few possibilities.

For some of us, it could be another race, nationality, or skin tone. For others, it could be those affiliated with a certain political party. Maybe it is people who dress a certain way or listen to certain music. People who use words we might not use. It could be people with a certain amount of money--rich or poor. Perhaps it is anyone whose ever been to jail--thieves, murderers, sexual offenders. It might be people who believe things you don't believe, do things you don't do, or approve of things you don't approve of.

Part of the message of Jonah's story is the redeemability of all humanity. No matter what we do, we still carry the image of God. That, my friends, is what I see as the sign of Jonah and the sign that Jonah became to Nineveh. He walked in despising those around him, preaching hellfire and brimstone, but found out God loves the people Jonah doesn't. And no matter what Jonah did, no matter what he said, God still showed mercy to a whole city of people outside of God's covenant relationship with Israel.

And so did Jesus, praise God. Without him, we may never have realized how far God's love extends and we wouldn't be part of a different covenant relationship with the of God Israel. Jesus ministered to those who were the sores on Israel's society: the tax collectors who cheated and lied; the prostitutes, adulterers, and others sexually different from the norm; the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and the other elite who thought they knew everything about God; the Samaritans, Romans, and other Gentiles who, according to much of the Old Testament, had no earthly right to be loved by God; and Jesus also went to the ever ambiguous "the sinners," which, as we know, is everyone. Everyone. Not just people who respond to God the way we expect them to. Everyone. Literally.

Now, as Jesus says in Luke, "something greater than Jonah is here" (11:32) and the story of the Ninevites bears witness to it. God loves whom God loves and we can't do a thing about it, no matter how much we pout and misunderstand.

Jesus referred to himself as the something greater than Jonah. After his ascension, another thing greater than Jonah came: the Spirit who dwells within us.

The Spirit dwells within us, Church. Because of that indwelling, today, we are the something greater than Jonah. We embody Jesus the Christ. We are called to be filled with the spirit: to die to ourselves and be raised from the belly of a sea monster, to love--to really love with our actions--the Ninevites wherever they be and whoever they are, which is everybody, everywhere.

We can judge however we want,
but God's love isn't bound by us.
Our judgments destroy,
but the Spirit heals all.
No matter how we judge them,
Jesus still loves them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Considering Rhetoric and Preaching the Gospel

At a point when I should be struggling with my thesis and a paper for my Hebrew class, I'm struggling with rhetoric.

I thought I had come to terms with rhetoric when it was one of the hot topics in the first year of Palm Beach Atlantic's honors program. We delved into Augustine and Cicero and took a diachronic look at Western rhetoric throughout the ages--from Gorgias and Demosthenes to Jonathan Edwards and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Augustine was biased towards rhetoric, since he taught it for a good time before his conversion. After his conversion, he had to address the negative views of some Christians concerning rhetoric. They deemed it all sophistry, assuming Truth needed no human to dress it up. Truth sells itself. Truth is attractive without make-up and jewelry.

I remember Augustine agreeing to a point. He believed Truth is attractive, but he also believed people aren't always attracted to the correct things. And if Truth is already attractive, what would a little rhetoric hurt? If the Hebrew people could take gold from the Egyptians--gold used in their religious practices and gold made off the back of oppression--then Christians could also use rhetoric, even the practices elucidated by "pagan" men like Cicero and even the pre-Christian Augustine.

I wrote the above to re-convince myself about the benefits of rhetoric. I'm struggling with it as I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday, a sermon to be preached at a Baptist church I have never attended and will likely never attend again. A sermon on the sign of Jonah.

I think the sign of Jonah is not just about death--as Jonah was in the belly of a fish, so was Jesus in the belly of the grave (btw, Jonah's prayer from inside the fish is very reminiscent of descriptions of hell and the grave, at least in the Hebrew and my opinion). I think the sign is about Jonah's calling (I'll post my sermon at another time).

In preparation, I was reminded how much I think the story of Jonah is a dream dreamt on the way towards Tarshish. Perhaps Jonah went to Ninevah, perhaps he didn't. Perhaps God miraculously kept Jonah alive for three days and nights in a fish's stomach or perhaps that image is one of the nonsensical images prevalent in dreams--like three skinny cows eating three fat cows.

As I got excited about this interpretation, I began to wonder if I could preach it. I don't think you have to interpret Jonah as a dream to get out of it what I see in it, although some things are missed, because reading Jonah as a dream is reading a different Jonah.

I grew frustrated with the desire to censor myself and the desire to preach what is on my heart. I grew frustrated knowing people might stop listening to me if I implied Jonah was never in the belly of a fish or went to Ninevah or sat under a gourd. Actually, people would probably not even consider I was implying Jonah didn't go to Ninevah, because they would be more concerned with the miraculous fish-event; they would be concerned not with the thrust of the story of Jonah, but with the fish.

But if I have a message to deliver--and I believe I do--rhetoric dictates I form my message based on my audience. Just as I'm not going to use Hebrew words in my sermon, neither should I say something I know will stop my audience from listening to me or taking me seriously.

Rhetoric will change my message, but it will not take away the message.

But I hate to be censored. I hate to be someone else for people--to be fake. I hate that the rules of rhetoric dictate I should take out my earrings to preach in this church. In fact, I already agreed to take them out. It was a prerequisite.

The pastor did not ask me to wear a tie, but I imagine someone in that church will spend a few minutes being frustrated with my dress. Perhaps I should wear a tie. I hope they won't be able to see my shoes, because I do not own nice shoes and I refuse to buy any. My money can go to places much better than pretty shoes.

Actually, I'm incorrect. I do own one pair of nice shoes. Maybe I'll donate them to someone who needs them a little more than I do. Someone who needs nice shoes for a job. Why does anyone need nice shoes for a job? What do the appearance of your shoes matter in how you do your work?

I feel like I'm selling out and changing who I am to be a part of a group that is supposed to accept anyone and everyone. I feel like I am approving of judging a person by their style. But if I have a message, I need to convey it in such a way that those with ears can listen. And since I don't know the people in the church I'm preaching, I have absolutely no basis to accuse them of judgment, lest I, too, am asking for judgment.

I am going to preach about Jonah, but I am not going to show up at that church and preach Jonah's message. (Look it up.)

I think I have good motives. I'm not trying to conform, I'm trying to be a vessel of transformation--working with God to deliver a message for those in my hearing. I'm uncomfortable with the whole situation, but being right doesn't mean being comfortable. Sometimes being right will be comfortable, but the two are not the same. Never have been. Never will be.

Lord, you are overturning my heart like you tried with Jonah in his dream, like Jonah thought you would do to Ninevah, like the Ninevites did in response to Jonah's message. Please overturn me and my heart. Use my words to transform others and their hearts.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Did God Neglect Cain? And Why Was Cain Angry Enough to Kill?

Last night, some friends and I were talking about Cain and Abel. I said I thought Cain got the raw end of the deal. I just didn't understand what the big deal was. This morning, one of my friends asked me what light the Hebrew might shed on story.

It shed some light. It was a fun translation and I knew a lot of the words, which always excites me. The following gives an interpretation in light of the Hebrew from the BHS. Although I get a little technical with some of the Hebrew, you can easily pass over what I don't explain and I hope you can still understand the translation process. For example, it doesn't matter if you know what "waw consecutive" or "Qal" means. But, pay attention to what I say about "perfect" and "imperfect" verbs.


Genesis 4:3 opens with a very general term used in narratives. It is often left untranslated. I usually translate it something like, "and it came to pass" or "and it was." It is the conjoining waw and a form of the word "to be" (Qal imperfect, 3ms with the waw consecutive). Again, it starts lots of narratives and books of the Bible. Very popular, that word.

The next two words are something like "at the end of days." My dictionary says one of the words generally connotes "at the end of a definite time." But our "definite time" is the plural "days," which is not a very definite time. The word "day" can be ambiguous as well, sometimes meaning a day and sometimes meaning time in general, as expositors of Genesis 1 love to remind us. So, although we are unaware of how long, it sounds to me like the story's way of telling us, "so, the two boys grew up and we aren't going to talk about what happened then, let's just go on to this next part of the story." (It also gives me a sort of "at-the-end-of-the-season," as if it is time for harvest? But I am unsure if you would have animals birthing and grains and fruits harvesting at the same time.)

"And Cain caused to bring in an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." "Caused to bring in" is a pretty rough translation ... the verb form has the sense of causation and agency and the word has the sense of bringing in, entering, and coming in. This verb in this form can connote gathering a harvest and simply bringing. So, perhaps, "And Cain brought an offering of fruit of the land to YHWH." Oh, but get this. It is in the imperfect, which often connotes an incomplete action. So, "And Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH." (Or, more simply "Cain brings ...", but we don't tell stories that way in English.)

Which brings us to verse 4 which could be translated to begin "And Abel" or "But Abel." Then same verb in a similar form is used, but in the perfect, which generally connotes a completed action. However, the difference in the two forms isn't so straight forward. The perfect doesn't always mean a completed action and the imperfect doesn't always mean an incomplete action. In fact, the "vav consecutive + imperfect" often connotes a completed action, which means the same verb form--imperfect--can connote the opposite of what it normally connotes simply by adding the word "and" on front of it.

Maybe the story is relating events of the past as if all are past, but with varying verb forms for novelty's sake (which is a practice not terribly dissimilar from English story-telling and writing habits). Or, it could be saying Cain went to offer his offering, but Abel was already offering his. In the following translation, I translated the imperfect and perfect sense of the verbs differently, in order to tell the story in this latter possible interpretation (Note, both offerings are in the singular, although "fruit" is a collective noun, I believe):

(4) But Abel, also he brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. (5) But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his face was falling.

I translated "gaze" instead of "regard," like some translations, (although, my dictionary gives both options). Here we have the possibility that the younger sibling came before the older, perhaps reflecting a biblical tradition of preference for the younger. The younger in this case seems to earn the preference by offering his offering first. Then we have the possibility that Abel offered the first-born, whereas Cain offers fruit, not the first-fruit [see note 1].

Furthermore, Cain could feel ignored, because when he is ready to give his offering, God is busy paying attention to Abel and Cain cannot wait. Cain is the first-born, but God is gazing/regarding the first-born of some animals from the second born of Adam and Eve. Cain cannot wait his turn and thinks he deserves priority and, full of himself, gets angry. And his face or countenance falls

And you know the rest of the story.


My translation of Genesis 4:3-5:

[And an end of times came to pass. OR: And it was at an end of days that] Cain was bringing an offering of the fruit of the land to YHWH. But Abel, he also brought from a (female) first-born of his flock and her fat. And YHWH gazed on Abel and his offering. But on Cain and his offering, YHWH was not gazing. And Cain was burning exceedingly [with anger], and his countenance/face was falling.

Note 1: Deut. 26:2 says "first of all fruit" with the same word for fruit, but, well, also with the words for "first of all." In Deut. 18:4 the word translated "firstfruits" in the KJV is the word for "first."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Pleasant Dream of Learning French

I dreamt last night I was learning French.

In my dream, learning French consisted of singing "Alouette," the kid's song about plucking a bird. I remember singing it and interacting with a friend of mine from Friendship, ME. We were outside of HAPY and Suttle Hall on the Gardner-Webb quad. She was being mean to people and I didn't understand why. I don't remember if I asked her not to be mean, but I moved on to someone else. I can't place the next person in my dream as anyone specific in my life. We walked from the quad towards Royster. We saw guys laying out working on tans. Either they wanted us to join or my new friend wanted us to join. He did, I didn't. He started play fighting with another guy and tried to get me to hang out while I was wandering around. I don't think I wanted to be involved in play fighting, but I saw they were having fun and was glad to be wanted. I still had "Alouette" in my head, because I was learning French.

When I woke up, I was disturbed by the meanness of my childhood friend. I was disturbed by the fighting, even if it was playful. I was disturbed that I was alone. The dream itself didn't conjure any negative feelings, but I was bummed about it. I stayed in bed, thinking about it while waiting for my alarm to go off in 10 minutes. When it did, I hit the snooze button.

Another rough dream? This is getting old.

I never hit snooze.

Later, I thought about the dream again (because "Alouette" was still in my head). I didn't focus on the part of me that I left on the quad or the new part of me I shyly smiled at from a distance, unsure of how I feel about him. Instead, I focused on the consistent part of me in the dream, the me learning French.

I took that shy smile from my dream for myself. I did have a pleasant dream. I was learning something new, something to better myself. It may be hard to determine externally and internally how to learn, what to learn, and in which direction to go (I wandered a bit aimlessly after the dream friend started play fighting), but I can still make progress.

I'm journeying. I see an ultimate destination in the kingdom, in God through Christ. I don't know where the little destinations are, but I keep evaluating in light of God and that kingdom, as much as possible, since I'm not always sure where those things are.

But we continue in faith, not knowledge. Not confirmation and assurance per se, faith. Embracing new things when faith dictates, even if I don't understand why, even if I never thought faith would lead me here, even if I don't know where to go next.

Learning French.

VoilĂ .

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Jesus Sells?

Driving down the street today, I noticed a sign I've noticed and ignored many times before. It is a terribly busy sign and I'm positive most people can't read the whole thing as they are driving by, unless they are stopped to turn at the intersection.

The sign is on a white background with black and red letters. The sign's main gist is advertising a local plumber. On the sign is the man's or the company's name, the question, "Need a plumber?", and a phone number. Probably a few other scattered statements are on the sign--perhaps any specialty services this specific plumber does.

This sign is a rectangle, like every other sign. But it goes outside of the box. On top of the sign is a wooden cross, also painted white. On the cross are the words "Jesus loves you" criss-crossing with the directions of the cross.

I cannot tell you why the plumber put that cross and those words on his signs. Guessing at his intentions are a judgment I do not want to make, lest I, too, be judged. But, I can tell you a few different outcomes for that cross.

First, community and alterity are produced--the "us" and "them," whether fortunate or not, whether positive or negative. The plumber asks the reader to think, "Hey, that plumber is a Christian," either "like me," or "not like me."

If you are not a Christian, you may care less whether or not your plumber is a Christian, especially when your sink won't shut off and is flooding your second-floor bathroom. But you'll remember after you call, if not before, that your plumber is the plumber with the cross above the sign. Your plumber is the Christian. Any mistake that plumber makes, any attitude, any pricey charges will not reflect simply that plumber, but Christianity as the customer knows it. No person is perfect, Christians included, but when we go over the top to identify ourselves (literally), those who perceive will go over the top to associate us with Christianity.

If you are a Christian, you might end up comparing your flavor of Christianity with the plumber's (as I did, unfortunately). You may seek out another plumber, for any number of reasons, from "witnessing" to price and quality of work. Or, you might choose the Christian plumber, because you and the plumber are part of the Church. You want to support other Christians, to be one with them, to show them love. You'll call the Christian plumber even if the price is a little steep, the quality not the best, or the manners not the kindest.

Now, the plumber might be one of the best, kindest, cheapest plumbers ever. But if the plumber carries the cross, then I don't understand why the sign needs to. I said I wanted not to judge, but I can barely keep myself from guessing that plumber has genuine, loving intentions, however misguided.

You see, whatever the plumber's intentions, the advertisement bears the cross, not the plumber. Instead of a Jesus who saves, we see a Jesus who sells. In some cases, Jesus sells shoddy work and a bad reputation. In other cases, Jesus is an unwilling marketing tool for an unwitting plumber. Jesus is no gimmick. Jesus is not an advertisement. Jesus is the Christ.


Now, friends, what are we to do when we approach such a situation? Jesus walked into the temple and was outraged when he saw people using God's name in vain by forcing people to be cheated of their money. He overturned their tables. When Jesus saw injustice, he called it out. "What would Jesus do?"

As I'm sure you're aware, I'm no messiah. It doesn't seem my place to call the plumber and ask to discuss religion over coffee. I have no relationship with the plumber and, therefore, no basis upon which to have a meaningful discussion.

Meanwhile, that sign is trying to carry the cross of my Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples they would do greater things. Does that statement include me?

I feel justified to be upset. Could I leave a large note on the sign? Could I send a letter? Could I have a discussion over coffee? Or do I allow the plumber to interpret Christianity without my input and I with the plumber's input (as discussions happen two-ways, after all, and I do not pretend to have the only right interpretation).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

It's a Mystery to Me

I've heard people condemn some theologies as vanity, because the theologies claim to know too much about God. Further pressed, these accusers might simply say they disagree with those theologies, but if unquestioned, they sometimes say God is meant to be mysterious. They don't want to study too much, because their God is a god of mystery--it is what allures them to worship.

I cannot fall into that camp. If God is infinitely complex, then mystery will always be part of the game. The more I think I understand God, the more I do not understand God. "Finiteness does not limit infinity; on the contrary, finiteness should give it its expansion and its truth" [1]. As we find out more about what is finite, we understand more and more how large infinity is--although it still lingers hazily beyond us.

The more of God we uncover, the more we find covered up.

If you want mystery, friends, then study God.


[1] Jean-Luc Nancy. Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. Trans. Bettina Bergo, Gabriel Malenfant, and Michael B. Smith. New York: Fordham UP, 2008.

Friday, August 14, 2009

My Tattoo

After reading the title, you might think I have a tattoo. Alas, I do not. But, I've got everything all planned out. And I'm so excited, I want to tell you about it!

You can see the image below.

It was presented to me as an illustration of a theological term: "perichoresis." In the image you might be able to decipher (through the Latin) the Parent at the top is neither the Son nor the Spirit; the Son to the right is niether the Parent nor the Spirit; and the Spirit to the left is neither the Parent nor the Son. However, the Parent is God in the center, as is the Son and the Spirit.

The image and the understanding are ancient. By tattooing this image on my body, I will place a visual representation of a large part of my history in the Christian trinitarian camp. Whatever I may come to believe, a part of me will always be trinitarian, even if it isn't the current part. (I'm not saying I am or am not currently trinitarian, but rather that I cannot tell the future. If you wonder about my current leanings, you'll have to ask sometime.)

The image and the idea also represent community, with an emphasis on unity, a unity I one day hope to enter and a unity I yearn to share, echoing the prayers of Jesus (John 17, esp. vv. 11 & 21). I know not whether we'll ever reach that community this side of the kingdom, but I know we must try and keep our eyes on that goal.

Along these same lines, my tattoo will remind me of Revelation 3:12: "I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name" (cf. Rev. 19:16). That kingdom, that new Jerusalem is how I envision perichoresis. It is not a real city descending onto earth, but rather our God, whose name I will be written on me,

written on my inner thigh.

Awkward? Sure. I won't go around showing everyone. I probably won't post pictures on facebook (more in consideration for the comfort level of others). But my tattoo isn't for other people to see (although I'll show people who want to see it). It is highly aesthetic, but personal aesthetics are about beauty beyond what people can see.

My tattoo will be in the right place for a vow. When Abraham wanted his son to have a wife (and, in turn, children), he asked his servant to swear by placing his hand on Abraham's inner thigh (Gen. 24; cf. Gen. 47:29). We make this connection etymologically in English, too. The word "testimony" comes from the Latin "testis," meaning "to witness." That same Latin word gives us the English, "testicle."

In the Genesis examples, the oaths were done at the brink of death, but taken by the source of life, as they understood it. I don't think I'm making any oath I haven't already made: a commitment to God, a commitment to love, and a commitment to social justice--these commitments and many others, but all the same one.

I've been telling people the inner thigh was used for blessings. I was incorrect, I guess. When I started looking at my Bible, I found out the text only says the inner thigh was for oaths. However, I wouldn't be surprised if some of those blessings had the hand on the inner thigh, since they were often for progeny. But, I am speculating. Still, I like my tattoo's location reminiscing of an oath (or blessing), for instead of having children, I want to help God's children. Instead of leaving behind the fruit of my loins, I want to leave behind the fruit of God's love in my life.

My tattoo will not be a reminder. I don't want a reminder on my body. My commitment is written on my heart. My tattoo will be the love and passion I cannot contain inside. The Spirit flows out of me--although I too often suppress it--in my actions and words, but soon it will also change my permanent appearance just as it changes who I am becoming and how I am becoming that person.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sell Your Possessions! An Imperative for One, for Some, for All? For You?

Matthew 19:16-22
Mark 10:17-23
Luke 18:18-23

I find importance in retelling stories, because much of our unspoken interpretations are lain bare in the retelling. So, let me tell you a story.

Jesus is on the outskirts of Judea, beyond the Jordan River. A young guy comes up to Jesus and asks him a question. In the Markan account, this man actually gets on his knees to ask this question, invoking (I assume) urgency and humility on the man's part and greatness and a lack of obligation on Jesus' part. The anonymous man asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life.

The word "inherit" is pretty telling. As far as I know, an inheritance implies family. Being a rich man, I'm sure this guy knew a thing or two about inheritance. Perhaps he had received an inheritance in his life, knowing how the inheritance is obligatory on the father's behalf, but not guaranteed for the child. If the man was Israelite (not a bad guess), he may have been familiar with his ancestors Jacob and Esau who had a rivalry concerning inheritance and blessing. Even if the rich man didn't know about Jacob and Esau, we will do well to remember Israelite history in our reading of the gospels.

Still, I doubt this guy expects to pull a Jacob in order to inherit eternal life from his heavenly parent who possesses it. Or, maybe he is trying to trick Jesus. He could be tempting Jesus, getting on his knees, calling him good, and seeing what he can do to take Jesus' rightful inheritance from him. Any guesses are filling the gaps in the story, of course, as intriguing as they might be.

In two of the accounts, the man calls Jesus good and in one account he doesn't call Jesus good, but asks what good deed he can do. Whatever it modifies, Jesus picks up on the word "good." Whatever the premise of this conversation, it has something to do with God the parent and possessor of eternal life, the child or children of God who receive or have received their inheritance, and Jesus' and the rich man's identity in relationship to God and each other.

The man seems to think Jesus is God's son, since he expects Jesus to know something about inheritance. Jesus brings attention to this assumption by saying only God is good. Jesus could be denying the status of God, claiming equality, or highlighting the man's assumptions in the question. Jesus draws attention, but doesn't make a big deal. He moves on from the statement about "good" to answer the rich man's question.

Jesus answers the questions by telling the man to keep the commandments, specifically a few he lists. The man tells Jesus he's already done so (this time the man does not use the word "good"). In Mark, the narrator says, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." In Luke: "When Jesus heard this, he said [...]." Matthew has no narration. I wonder why Luke needed to include, "when Jesus heard this."

"Well, a-well, a-well, a-well, huh! Tell me more, tell me more," like was Jesus surprised? "Tell me more, tell me more," was he telling the truth? Grease aside, I want to know what Jesus was thinking (don't we always?). What did the guy mean when he said he had kept the commandments? Did he mean he the Law as a whole (which, as far I as understand it, you can obey by sacrificing after you transgress a part of it, thereby keeping the Law)? What made Jesus love this man? Did Jesus believe the man was honest and earnest? Did Jesus love the man like we love children--because of their innocence? Did Jesus see a trickster--a Jacob--in the eyes looking up at him beseechingly?

And did the guy have any clue what was coming up? I hesitantly guess he didn't think keeping the commandments was "enough." Did he expect something more from Jesus? Was he disappointed in Jesus' first answer? Why would Jesus give the first answer if it wasn't enough? Is the answer different, depending on where the person is on their journey?

After the man's response, Jesus utters some infamous words:
"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Mark 10:21

"There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Luke 18:22

"If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Matthew 19:21
Jesus' statements are directed at the rich man, not the Law and not Second Temple Judaism. But for this man, the commandments were not enough or, more likely, his interpretation of the commandments were not enough ... not enough for perfection, which implies completeness (hence the other Mark and Luke mention a lacking whereas Matthew mentions perfection).

In Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the man he lacks something and then tells him what it is. In Matthew, the man knows he lacks something and asks Jesus about it. It was in Matthew's account that I first thought the man might already have eternal life waiting on him. But the man and Jesus knew there is more to life than eternal life. The man knew something was missing and Jesus told him it was treasure in heaven. Outside of Matthew's account, the same interpretation works, but Jesus points out the difference instead of the man explicitly mentioning it.

I'm not sure what treasure in heaven is. Will we want anything other than God and each other? Will we want hundredfold of everything we gave up in this life? Should we even want something in heaven? I try to achieve a Stoic approach to things, because I don't want to be tied to possessions. But, am I to detach only to attach in the kingdom? And if I give up "possessions" as the interpretation of treasure, I'm not about to think of Ray Boltz's song, "Thank You," either.

So, I'll stick with Jesus' response to refer to treasure in heaven--which we should want, I guess--not eternal life. I just don't happen to know what treasure in heaven is. But, I'm OK with some ignorance. I don't know if that man knew exactly what Jesus was talking about either. I don't think he processed as much of the words as we did. Then again, he was there and probably knew a lot more about the situation than we do. So, I feel safe in investigating the conversation a bit.

After the conversation, the man left, forlorn. He was rich. Selling his things would mean selling a lot. It would take time. It would mean a lot of sacrifice. He would have to get rid of things he loved for reasons ranging from sentimentality to novelty and prestige. We don't know what the man did. He may have never sold his things. He may have stopped upholding the commandments. He may have sold everything and then followed Jesus. The story doesn't tell us. The author of the gospels didn't include the story because they were interested in the rich man. Instead, they were interested in the teaching of Jesus on eternal life and riches in heaven.

It is a really interesting teaching. Normally, you receive an inheritance when someone dies. I doubt neither Jesus nor the rich man expected God to die and leave one of them eternal life in the divine will (whether they were at the center of it or not). And whatever Jesus' response meant and/or means, Jesus had one very important thing to tell the man. That man needed to follow Jesus, a journey leading to the death of a God (a death of the God?).

It is at the cross where we can link Jesus' death as Christ with our own self death--which includes a death to possessions--as God's children.

As it turns out, our inheritance and our treasures come not from God's death, but our own.


To state it in a less artistically pleasing way than my ending before the "===," I do think this command is for all of us. We literally need to get rid of possessions. I'm not prepared to say everyone needs to sell all their possessions (even though I think every Christian could sell their possessions and there would be enough people to buy everything). Neither am I prepared to say we do not need to sell all our possessions. I am very prepared to say we should all struggle with this command, though. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But you should struggle with it--and more than once. Never settle in your interpretation for too long. Be prepared even to sell your interpretation and gain new ones in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.