Time Out for Testimony (Reign of Christ Sunday)

Just as last week’s text relativized every human ruling institution, so this text relativizes and critiques every human ruler. The contrasts with normal human power could not be starker. Human claims of wisdom, genius and competence will always disappoint us.

Each Christ the King Sunday features a trial scene. In Matthew 25, the nations are on trial in the Great Judgment. In John 19, Pilate is on trial even though he thinks the reverse is the case. Here in Luke 23, Jesus is on trial on the cross. One thief is the chief prosecutor who finds Jesus wanting. The other thief speaks for the defense and protests Jesus’ innocence. That thief joins Jesus in Paradise.

Is this an image of daily life in Christ? I have no trouble accusing him of disappointing me. I’m ready to throw him over almost at a whim. I am less likely to remember who he truly is and to plead for my own remembrance.


The whole crowd convcts Jesus as a failure, a fraud, and a fool. The criticism is that he cannot even save himself. This is how the world understands power in the end–the capacity to spare myself from death–the rest of you be damned. In the reign of Christ, Jesus saves others by giving himself, not saving himself…and invites us to do the same. This is made clear, for example, in Colossians 1:14. This is what it means to be the image of the invisible God (see Colossians 1:15).


It cannot be that Christ begins to rule on earth as in heaven at the Crucifixion. Jesus Christ is revealed as the ruler he has always been–from eternity.

For The Lord of the Rings fans, I offer this illustration. Aragorn does not become the king of Gondor when Morder is defeated. He is revealed as the king he has always been. So Tolkien titles Volume 3 of the LOTR trilogy, The Return of the King.

So I do not make Jesus king of my life. I acknowledge his reign (or not) in faith, hope and love. It’s not whether Jesus is my sovereign or not. It’s whether I live like a subject or not. Jesus does not become the Cosmic Christ of Colossians. He is revealed as what the Son is from all eternity. The cross is an uncovering, not a promotion.

If the Crucifixion reveals Jesus as the sovereign the Son has always been, this means that the Triune God always rules this way.


So, what is the relationship of the Christian to power? It is nonviolent critique based on the Reign of Christ as the canon for all exercises of power. So Christians can never identify any human rule or power as fulfilling God’s reign. Liberal democracy is not the end of history. Donald Trump is not the reincarnation of Cyrus as Messiah. Christianity is not by definition the apotheosis of human culture. Whitness is not next to godliness (find a new job, Stephen Miller!).

I would be hard-pressed to say such things from a pulpit, even though I should. I wrestle far too much with my need for approval to take that risk in venues more face to face than this. But I know that braver preachers than I can speak the truth to power in love.

As we watch the ongoing impeachment inquiry, we have a standard for judging all the parties involved–the reign of Christ. It is clear to me that our current president has abused the powers of his office for purposes of personal aggrandizement. It is clear to me that his opponents made a political calculation about the utility of going after him at this point. It is clear that previous administrations and candidates have had their own black eyes and blind spots (I have no time for “what about” defenses–just offering a description).

There are worse human rulers and better human rulers. Right now in several countries we are on the “worse” end of the continuum. But on Reign of Christ Sunday I hope I might hear words that lead us to place our trust in the Triune God who makes wars to cease, etc.

Back to listening to the hearings…

The Widow’s Minute

I’m often tempted to sort podcasts by title and ignore those that are not immediately attractive. That’s a mistake more often than not. Those pods that seem least relevant to me are often the most informative. Humility training is usually free and frequently available.

The latest illustration of this principle is the current episode of It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders (Episode 253, 11/19/2019, 33:40). Let me quote a bit from the show notes.

“Journalist Alicia Menendez has noticed a problem: in the workplace, and in many aspects of their lives, women are forced into becoming inauthentic versions of themselves in order to be likeable. Her new book, ‘The Likeability Trap: How To Break Free And Succeed As You Are,’ examines how to avoid these traps. Menendez and guest host Elise Hu talked about creating more fulfilling personal relationships and a better workplace and how likeability plays into politics.”

The pod is worth the time on its own, but it caused me to reflect more on this past Sunday’s gospel reading. When we get the Lukan Little Apocalypse in chapter twenty-one, it is tempting to preface it with the small story labelled in some study bibles as “The Widow’s Offering.” It’s much more satisfying and productive to preach on the generous widow than to proclaim about wars, insurrections, earthquakes, famine, plagues and persecution (at least that’s true for me). I have made that homilietical choice several times over the past decades.

I am reminded now that this is not a helpful choice. Not that pushing out a good stewardship sermon in Novemer is a bad thing. Quite the contrary. But portraying the widow in Luke 21:1-4 as a stewardship heroine is not a good thing. This is not news for folks, but it’s good to remind myself of this reality in my own reflections.

Typically I and others have protrayed the widow as a model of faithful and courageous generosity in contrast to the rich people as all gave their temple offerings. The widow gave her last two coins, “all she had to live on.” Even though her gift was the smallest, it cost her the most. Sometimes I then have made the point that the size of the gift is not as important as the size of the heart of the giver (although I would always hope that rich members might have proportionally big hearts).

I am sorry for all the problems this perspective causes. It’s easy to valorize generous poverty when one has enough and more. It’s easy to use this text as a scaffold on which to build a shaming platform to prick the consciences of well-off Christians. It’s easy to leverage our expectation that women are givers and to thus assume that the giving is the point Jesus wishes to make in seeing the widow. In that regard, I refer you back to the podcast that led off this entry.

In fact, I see something else happening here. The text is preceded by warnings about the scribes who “devour widow’s houses.” The text is followed by the long apocalyptic discourse on the destruction of the temple and the sack of Jerusalem. What is the throughline in verses one through four?

The political and legal system was being used to oppress the poor and those without legal standing, such as widows. It appears that the temple system, wittingly or not, was participating in that systemic oppression. The poor widow’s gift was an example of how the temple system had been coopted not only to sustain existing power differentials but also to deprive the poor of the few remaining resources they had. Instead of protecting the widow, the orphan and the sojourner, the temple system had become “a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).

So I no longer hear the story of the widow’s offering as an example of heroic stewardship. Rather, I find it a challenge to the church and our ministry. In what ways do we participate in the system that oppresses the poor and transfers their meager resources to the rich? More than that, what are we doing to oppose that system–which has now produced the greatest top vs. bottom disparity in income in human economic history?

How do I participate in a system that valorizes the “niceness” of women to the exclusion of other qualities? For centuries, the church has lived off the free labor of women who did not work outside the home. Female pastors live with more double standards than can fit on a page. Our evanglical sisters and brothers are once again tying themselves in knots trying to prove that women are somehow inherently inferior to men and thus cannot be preachers. And let’s not get started on the modernist gender essentialism in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communities that underwrites the ongoing oppression and abuse of women with the blessing of the Church. In that regard I would refer you to the latest essay by Bryce Rich on the publicorthodoxy.org site.

Sometimes I like to think of this widow as the same one who parabolically threatens the judge in Luke 18. I know that’s an imaginative reconstruction, but what if? What if those two copper coins are her final, biting challenge to the God who seems to have left her bereft and an object of pity? Perhaps this is her heroism–the crabby courage that won’t settle for niceness in the face of nonbeing.

If a good sermon makes one think of the text during the week, then I heard a beauty on Sunday.

Oh, and be sure to listen to that podcast! In addition, don’t miss out on the discussions at workingpreacher.org. That site will be one of the places I support again this year on “Giving Tuesday.”

Listening Lately, 11/16/2019

When I hear from the same guest on more than one of my favorite pods, I take some notice. Not so much that I rush right out and buy the book–I’m too stingy for that much of the time. But such folks are certainly worth a mention here.

Andrew Marantz appeared on The Ezra Klein Show on November 11 and on Fresh Air with Terry Gross on November 13. Marantz is the author of the new book, Antisocial, and of the New York Times op-ed, “Free Speech is Killing Us.” He spent a great amount of time “embedded” with alt-right internet mavens and uncovers the frightening world of how they use social media to create “news.” I may need to get the book after all.

I am thinking about this especially in light of events in the twitterverse yesterday. On Twitter President Trump attacked a witness during the impeachment hearing. He later defended the action as a simple exercise of his right to freedom of speech. In what ways must that right be conditioned and even limited by taking into account the power differentials between speaker and subject? The founders didn’t talk about that in the Bill of Rights.

On Point re-ran an episode from July, and I’m so glad they did. The episode was called “Climate Change is Transforming How Our Food Gets from Farm to Table” (#570, 11/13/2019, 47:12). I knew it sounded familiar, I then realized I had listened to parts of it on broadcast while driving somewhere in July. But it deserves a full listen and perhaps a second listen.

Guests were Marc Heller and Daniel Cusick, reporters for E&E News. They reported a multi-story series on the topic. Most interesting to me was the conversation regarding “Kernza”, a perennial intermediate wheatgrass being developed at the Land Institute of Salina, Kansas.

This perennial will require fewer inputs, less water and much less tillage. In addition it will build topsoil depth and increase the soil capacity as a carbon sink. Yields are lower than conventional wheat because of its perennial nature, but I think the trade-offs will make both economic and environmental sense.

I was taken by this episode because I started reading about the work of Wes Jackson and the Land Institute in the early 1980’s. I still think his book New Roots for Agriculture should be required reading for any informed person (and it’s pretty short besides).

In those earlier years the focus was on producing corn in perennial polycultures, and I’m sure that work continues. Regardless, this is one of the healthy agricultural responses to climate change–perennial food grains. Our most helpful response in this area is to eat lower on the food chain as often as possible.

The other part of the pod that grabbed me was the interview with Becky Weed, scientist, sheep farmer, activist, philosopher and writer from Montana. I’d like to hear a pod dedicated to an hour of her talking.

The whole thing gave me a gratitude moment as well. In 1973, this fifty year trajectory toward industrial farming and rural carnage was launched during the reign of Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. His motto for farmers was “Get big or get out!”

My dad heard and understood the motto. I was fifteen. He took me aside and asked me if I wanted to farm. If I did, he said he would try to rent more land. If not, he said he was going to downsize and prepare for a town job. I know he longed for me to take up the family business. But it was too much work and pain for too little return as far as I was concerned. We didn’t get big, We got out. Thanks, Dad, for your clarity and generosity! Of course, industrial agriculture landed on its Butz, and we are now reaping the consequences–many of which are killing us.

I want to briefly note one more frequent flier on the recent pods. David Owen, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written a book called Volume Control. I mentioned his work in a previous post. Owen appeared on Fresh Air with Terry Gross a week and a half ago. He was featured on Science Friday with Ira Flatow on November 15. It was much the same information in each interiew, but this guy is winsome and a truth teller. As soon as is practical, I’m getting my ears checked.

I want to say a very good word about the Sermon Brainwave podcasts from the Working Preacher site. Even though I don’t preach reguarly now, I listen to the pods each week to keep my head in the game. When I was preaching reguarly, I depended on our friends from Luther Seminary to jump start my preaching process. I hope my preacher friends benefit from the podcasts as much as I do. And nothing would please me more than if you would go to the Working Preacher site (workingpreacher.org) and click on “Support This Site.”

Happy weekend and happy listening!

Listening Lately

I had a small cold and we spent time with family over the weekend, so I’m catching up on my listening. I do want to note a few pods that I found interesting, and you might as well.

I listen regularly to The Bible for Normal People, hosted by Peter Enns and Jared Byasse. The most recent podcast (11/10/2019, Episode 107, 46:43) featured Cindy Wang Brandt on raising children in the [Christian] faith. Brandt is author of a book called Parenting Forward, and hosts a podcast of the same name. You can see her bio and make connections at cindywangbrandt.com. I follow Brandt on Twitter and find many of her tweets a bit more compelling than the conversation on TBFNP.

The conversation reminded me of a more general conversation I’ve had with myself for several months. This pod, as well as Jonathon Martin’s The Zietcast, often feature stories of “ex-vangelicals.” Many are part of the “Evolving Faith” community, whose most notable member was the late author, Rachel Held Evans. What I find somewhat gripping is the ongoing story of pain, rejection and punishment these folks share as they have moved away from American Evangelicalism. Brandt shares another in that series of stories.

I am reminded of how little my faith tradition scarred me with manipulation, coercion and abuse. While these stories are the most searing for women and people of color coming out of such traditions, it seems that no one has left unscathed.

I am grateful that I did not experience such faith traumas. I wonder sometimes if that was simply because the life of faith was a tangential feature in my growing up years and not really a central part of my identity. I was perhaps spared the trauma at the cost of missing out on the passion. That being said, I listen to these stories with astonishment and admiration.

The latest episode of Hidden Brain, hosted by Shankar Vedantam (11/11/2019, 27 min.) was titled “Hungry, Hungry Hippocampus: The Psychology of How We Eat.” The episode features a conversation with psychologist Paul Rozin (web.sas.upenn.edu/rozin/). He has researched human food choice from a variety of perspectives. He tells stories about his research that even include dog doo flavored with chil flakes. What’s not to like about that?

I appreciated the broad framework of Rozin’s approach. From the title I thought perhaps the episode would be another exploration of the neuroscience of dieting. It was, however, a more holistic exploration of food in the fabric of culture.

Brenda and I adopted a whole food, plant-based died about fifteen months ago. We worked our way toward that diet in several stages and are quite happy with our choices at this point. The experience caused us to reflect on how eating habits and food choices are determined far more by our communities than by our cravings. So I found this pod interesting and affirming.

New Podcast of the week must go to Finding Fred. The pod is hosted by Carvell Wallace on Fatherly.com and has been picked up by IHeartradio podcasts. Wallace also hosts the Closer Than They Appear pocast. He is a popular culture and sports journalist and author. See more on him at carvellwallace.com.

In the midst of the Mister Rogers media boom fifty years after we met him in his neighborhood, I find this pod to stand out. I am three episodes in to the ten episode series. Already we have heard a full and sensitive treatment of the relationship between Rogers and Francois Clemmons, including some extensive conversation with Clemmons (episode 2). Episode three takes Rogers’ Christian faith and ministerial vocation with the seriousness it deserves. I really appreciated that conversation, done from the perspective of a person of faith.

What have you found worth a listen lately?

October 30 Listening

Apparently Kanye West has had a conversion or transformation or renewal or…something. I know it’s been in the news and has been embraced by white evangelicals and panned by folk on other parts of various spectra. But I know nothing about hip-hop, West, or popular music in general. I am militantly irrelevant. Nonetheless, I found one of the hours of On Point yesterday informative in this regard. You can find it here: https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/10/30/kanye-west-jesus-is-king.

I listened to the selected cuts offered on the pod and found them theologically vacuous and musically insipid–but what do I know? So I pursued a few opinions for further reflection. Shane Claiborne adds to the conversation in his 10/30 article found on redletterchristians.org ( https://www.redletterchristians.org/is-jesus-king-of-kanyes-bank-account/) . Andre Henry has an interesting and useful op-ed on the RNS.org site as well (it’s linked on the Red Letter Christians site– https://www.redletterchristians.org/why-trump-not-jesus-is-at-the-heart-of-white-christian-love-for-kanye/ . The dual embrace of a shallow prosperity gospel and playing up to white, evangelical, mega-church gnosticism (my description) seems to drive these reviews.

There are days when unrelated podcasts provide such interesting juxtapositions and contrasts. The Zeitcast with Jonathon Martin featured a video presentation from Martin and colleagues at “The Table” in Oklahoma City to one of Professor Brad Jersak’s classes in Canada. The episode was entitled “Jesus and Justice in the 21st Century with Malika Cox and Cece Jones-Davis.” ( http://www.jonathanmartinwords.com/the-zeitcast). It was an excellent and impassioned primer on the subject matter in the title. The last bit of the episode was a particularly searing and important conversation about the Tulsa racial cleansing atrocities of a hundred years ago. It’s worth hearing for that alone.

On October 22 Charity Nebbe interviewed Katherine Hayhoe on The Talk of Iowa on the subject of “Bridging the Gap Between Science and Faith.” Hayhoe is a climate scientist and a Christian who brings the passion of her faith to her work as a scientist. I found it a worthwhile listen and a second perspective on the relationship between following Jesus and living in the real world here and now (https://www.iowapublicradio.org/post/bridging-gap-between-science-and-faith). I continue to be astonished at the range of guests and topics Nebbe brings to this show–from gardening to global politics and everything in between. And I am always impressed with Nebbe’s gently fearless and formidable skill as an interviewer.

The third pod is the Kanye West info referenced above. It’s no wonder people have a struggle figuring out what it means when we say we follow Jesus.

Happy listening!

Sharing Podcasts

I have the privilege of time to listen to a variety of podcasts during the day. I hope that I might point to some that I’ve enjoyed and/or found useful. I also hope that you might recommend new podcasts for our review and enjoyment as well.

I’m not really interested in fiction pods, although I think there are lots of great ones out there. I listen to a diverse collection of non-fiction pods with no particular focus. My library is NPR-heavy at this point because podcasting is how I access most of my NPR content now that I don’t really drive all that much. But I am gradually expanding my library.

I use Castbox as my listening platform, but I have no investment in one platform over another. I assume you can find the relevant shows on your favorite platform. Anyway…

It’s been another full morning of listening. My Podcast of the Day is the current episode of the NPR show, Hidden Brain. The episode is called “BS Jobs,” and it focuses precisely where the title points. In large part it is a conversation with David Graeber from the London School of Economics. If you have ever worked at a pointless job, you’ll probably enjoy this one. If you have elements of your job that seem pointless (and who doesn’t?), there will be some useful insights here.

You might think that a behavioral economist would be dull and boring. But Graeber has engaging stories, personal perspectives, counter-intuitive insights and a bemused distance from it all that makes the conversation fun and fascinating.

I am a great fan of Talk of Iowa as well. Today Charity Nebbe introduced me to a newly-minted podcast called Mid-Americana: Stories from a Changing Midwest. It is produced by two faculty members from Central College in Pella, Iowa (my alma mater). The focus is on what “Midwest” can and does mean beneath the folksy stereotypes. I listened to an espisode telling the story of a Jewish-Latina artist with deep Iowa roots and remarkable experiences, especially in connection with the United Farm Workers. I look forward to more episodes.

In the category of newly-discovered podcasts, I’m enjoying the Simply Wholehearted podcast from the Gravity Center for emanuel Activism here in Omaha. More on that one when I’ve listened to some more.

I look forward to hearing about your favorites (and not-so-favorites). I wish you productive listening!