And That’s the Good News — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Luke 21:1-36

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

My world has been coming apart at the seams and from the center since long before I was born. “Things fall apart,” William Butler Yeats wrote in 1919, in ‘The Second Coming,’ “the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote his twentieth century apocalyptic verse in the aftermath of the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, the near-fatal illness of his wife, and at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. Disintegration was in the air around the globe.

Secular prophets had predicted and pointed to the dissolution of modernity even earlier. “God is dead,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “and we killed him!” The collaboration of Enlightenment modernity and liberal Protestantism had produced a sterile and empty consensus which equated Christianity with high European culture. That empty consensus was the soil out of which National Socialism arose as the old world continued to fly apart.

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I didn’t know about these things in my young life. The world seemed put together well-enough for my tastes. I was born while the myth of American innocence and the ideology of American exceptionalism still seemed to make sense. There was that odd little police action on the Korean peninsula that threatened to unmoor us a bit, but we recovered from that. Joe McCarthy rattled the chains of authoritarianism, but he was too stupid to make that stick.

My world – the world of White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism continued to turn, apparently undisturbed. But under that serene surface, my world was disintegrating.

Thurgood Marshall moved the Supreme Court into only its second spate of morally defensible rulings on race. But the world that produced me pushed back – some schools resisting until nearly the end of the millennium. Sputnik threw us Americans into a beep-beeping panic as we wondered if we really were the best and the brightest this cosmos had to offer. But Jack Kennedy, poster boy for these best and brightest, promised that we would land on the moon before the end of the decade.

President Kennedy nearly got us blown out of the cosmos before the first space capsule could be launched with the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis. We survived by a hairsbreadth. Then Lee Harvey Oswald ripped the façade off our invincibility from the School Depository window. The center began to wobble. The foundations started to shake.

I learned to speak, to write, to read, and to think while Civil Rights and Vietnam filled the newspapers. The nightly news carried the body counts, the bombings (both foreign and domestic), and the cities on fire. Malcolm died, although I didn’t hear about it until later. Then Martin. Then Bobby. The wobble became a shaking. The foundations were crumbling.

I lost a school bus driver, a friend, and a cousin to the body bags. I came of political age in the era of Watergate. I cast my first vote for Carter, but the tide was already running to Reagan. Law and order, family values – White, Male, European, Moderate, Capitalism pushed back hard. My world was held together with myths and lies, with enemy lists and Iran Contra, with law and order that was hardly lawful and anything but orderly.

My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

I got to seminary and learned to watch my language. I wasn’t swearing in class, well, not much. But I heard about inclusive talk, something my conservative little church college had kept safely in the shadows. I knew the critique was correct and started to wonder what else I assumed that was wrong. The list was and is so very long.

I hadn’t gotten out of seminary yet when I heard that everything I had learned, all the training I had received, was obsolete. I had been trained as a pastor in “Christendom” (whatever the hell that was), and the time of Christendom was now over. I had to be contemporary, seeker-sensitive, visitor-friendly, and driven by attendance numbers rather than membership statistics.

I learned about the homogeneous unit principle of church growth, although I never learned to love it. And I went to conferences in places that looked like gyms and warehouses rather than basilicas and cathedrals. Megachurch pastors were like rockstars. I didn’t want to be one, but it didn’t hurt to imitate them.

Well, that had a short shelf-life, decreased in part by the misconduct of giant egos and in part by the classism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and narcissism of the models employed. That wasn’t the answer. But my world kept spinning into wider chaos, deeper despair, murkier visions of the future.

So, I’ve spent a lifetime chasing a dying world because that’s what I was given.

Our personal worlds have a tendency to fly apart as well. I thought I could see the path from the all-consuming parish to a quiet retirement with my spouse. But the denomination and the congregation had other plans. The denomination made the right decision on homosexuality, and some of those closest to me in the parish made the wrong kind of response. It was time to go, and to let go of that part of my world.

A few months later, I was no longer married, and my first wife was buried. Only now did I really experience what it was like to have a world disintegrate, to have the future run through my hands like so much sand. There was no going back to the way things were. There was no recovery. There was only being pushed forward into a newness that I had not sought and for which I was not prepared.

My world has been disintegrating my whole life, and most of the time I didn’t even know it. Yet, that disintegration is the good news.

It’s the good news because large parts of that world need to die in order for God’s love to live fully among us. A world constructed for the sake of White Supremacy does not deserve to continue. A world built to preserve Male dominance is not worth saving. A world that makes northern European the definition of normal and cultured is too limited for the grandeur of Human being. A world that seeks moderation in all things always ends up underwriting the status quo of those with the power. Unfettered capitalism will destroy us and our environment on its own unless we find another way.

We know from the Hebrew scriptures that there is nothing new under the sun. Those who claim to be the only ones who can save us – those charlatans are a dime a dozen in human history. Nonetheless, we are often still seduced by their siren songs. Wars and insurrections are everyday realities now and have been for millennia. Conflict between nations, empires, kingdoms, and tribes is ubiquitous. Natural disasters arrive like clockwork, plagues (and pandemics) don’t care about scientific progress, and famine is a perennial feature of human greed.

“Now,” Jesus tells his followers, “when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” My world is disintegrating. And that’s the good news.

We who follow Jesus proclaim that we are not destined to face the disintegration alone. The Son of Man is the Coming One – not just once or twice, but always. This is the very heart of the one we call Jesus. He is Immanuel, God with us. That’s why we can lift up our heads in hope as the world is falling apart. Heaven and earth will come apart, he tells us, but his words – his promise of hope and salvation – will never desert us.

“This coming of God into the place of disordering violence is crucial to our understanding of the events around us,” Serene Jones writes, “as clergy, could it be that our call is primarily to announce God’s already-enacted advent, the divine coming? If so, then we need to remember that as we seek to minister in a world too full of violence, we do not need to make God appear, for God is here already. Our task is to proclaim God’s presence” (page 39).

It is that presence which makes the proclaiming possible. White Christian Nationalism must be dismantled if humans are once again to flourish as part of the American project. White Male Supremacy must be abandoned if all people are to live out their identities in hope and love. An economic system that places the majority of the world’s wealth in the hands of a group small enough to fit in a conference room is a system that cannot be allowed to continue. A world political order that declares democracy obsolete and human rights impractical is an order that must fall.

You see, I have just described my world – the world I inherited, the world I accepted uncritically, the world that has given me more power, position, privilege, and property than I could ever deserve. That’s the world that has been disintegrating for longer than I’ve been alive. That process of dissolution will continue long after I’m gone. Perhaps my great-grandchildren will look back in disgust at the world they have left behind.

I’m no utopian. The world as we know it, on our own terms, is always coming to an end. And that’s the good news. But there is something about our time which has a particular stench of death and decay about it. And the dim outlines of a different way are beginning to rise up out of the debris.

So, we hear the call of Advent to be awake, to be alert, to stay sharp, and to do it all with prayer and courage. And that’s the good news.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.”

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming.”

Text Study for Luke 21:1-36 (Pt. 6); November 28, 2021

Pain Management

How do we deal with the pain that is an inevitable part of life? Pain is a signal from our body that something is wrong and requires attention. But pain is also an experience that can be managed to some degree. “Pain is a warning system,” writes Dr. Abdul-Ghaaliq Lalkhen in his book, An Anatomy of Pain, “informing us that there is a threat to the safety of our body or even that damage has already occurred, bit if experiencing pain and receiving this information is not immediately beneficial, then the message relaying this information will be de-prioritized and sometimes ignored by the brain” (page 10).

We have some measure of choice in how we respond the experience of pain once it passes the gateway of our nervous system and is processed by our brain. We may choose, at least for a while, to ignore the pain and hope it goes away. We may look for the cause of the pain to see if we can stop it at the source. We may recruit others to help in that effort (they are called physicians). We may seek to dull or suppress the pain through chemicals or distractions. Or (and this is the exceptional response), we may seek to understand the pain and deal with it as part of our larger reality of being human.

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The readers of the Lukan account are experiencing some measure of pain as a community. We can speculate about the specific sources of that pain, but it should be obvious from our reading that the result is a deep disruption of their lives and threats to their continued existence. The inventory of persecutions in Luke 21:12-18 makes the nature of this pain clear and specific.

It seems that they are tempted to deal with the pain by denying, dulling, and suppressing it. “Pay close attention,” we read in verses 34 and 35, “lest your hearts are burdened in dissipation and drunkenness and the anxieties of this everyday life, and that day lands upon you unexpectedly as a trap.” The language used here refers not only to emotional avoidance but also to the use of substances to dull the senses and to make one simply not care about the pain experience.

These days opioids are the primary chemical agents in use by physicians (and by any number of informal users) to dull and suppress the pain. No, that’s not quite right, as Dr. Lalkhen points out. “We use opiate medications postoperatively because they affect the way you interpret the sensations from your body,” he writes, “they make you care less. Opiates have been called the perfect ‘whatever’ medication,” Lalkhen continues, “because they allow you to ignore the messages that are coming from your body” (page 39).

I found that description surprising. I was under the impression that all pain medications interfered in some way with the actual transmission of the injury or illness information from the location in the body to the processing centers in the brain. Opiates, however, work on our assessment of the pain experience rather than the mechanism of pain itself. Since pain is an experience rather than merely a sensation, how much I care about that experience makes all the difference in what I feel.

The words in our text describe a response to the pain of life for the Lukan readers that is very much about caring less about the pain. That response to pain makes a great deal of sense. We can only be alert to pain and threat for so long before we lose attention and resilience. We can become habituated to a certain level of pain in our bodies and in our communities. We can ignore a certain amount of pain as well. The American response to the Pandemic makes it clear that given a certain amount of time and emotional distance, we can accommodate far more social suffering than we would care to admit.

If, on the other hand, we remain alert and vigilant for an extended period of time, we can develop stress disorders. PTSD, for example, keeps a person’s systems on high alert even when the pain or the threat has been treated or dissipated. The PTSD sufferer remains in the pain experience and is hearing psychological and physiological alarm bells all the time, even in response to unrelated stimuli. That sort of hypervigilance is debilitating and not what the Lukan author intends here.

I want to suggest that our text is not about maintaining hypervigilance but rather is about developing the faithful stamina necessary for the long haul. Perhaps that is the best translation of hupomene in verse 19. The translation, “patient endurance,” is certainly adequate, but it is perhaps too passive to fully communicate the Lukan intention. Faithful stamina is something that we can develop, maintain, and then rely upon in the face of pain and distress.

This leads me to reflect on the counsel and challenge Robin DiAngelo offers to White people in responding to and “treating” our deeply rooted White Supremacy. She urges us to be active in confronting our participation in the Domination system. Acknowledging our place in that system can be painful, and we can seek to escape that pain. “But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort,” DiAngelo writes, “we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility” (page xiv).

This particular variety of faithful stamina is about looking closely at myself as White and as living and benefitting from a web of White dominance and privilege. “Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate,” DiAngelo observes, “we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves,” she continues, “we become highly fragile in conversations about race” (page 1-2).

The challenge is to sit with the discomfort – the pain – long enough that we can begin to name it for ourselves with honesty and hope. The temptation is to flee to immediate solutions, and there are many who seek to profit off that desire for quick fixes. That’s not a new game, by any means, as we can see in Luke 21:7-8. But we can be just as easily taken in by the spiritual, political, and ideological snake-oil peddlers as could the first readers of the Lukan text.

DiAngelo argues that “a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility,” she observes from long experience, practice, and self-examination, “and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race’ (page 7).

One of the marks of privilege is the ability to insulate ourselves from such discomfort and pain. Perhaps this is also a problem for the Lukan community as they settle a bit more into the culture — that they will become oblivious to the real pain of the world. But insulating ourselves is the moral and spiritual equivalent of using opioids to deal with long-term pain issues. The pain doesn’t go away. We simply care much less about it. The more insulated we are, the less practice we have in sitting with the pain, and the lower our stamina is. “An antidote to white fragility is to build up our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause,” DiAngelo writes, “not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial” (page 128).

One of the marks of my own privilege is the simple temptation to keep all the pain of Reality at a distance. I can isolate myself physically and emotionally from the hard edges of contemporary life. I can unfriend, unfollow, and uncare. I can withdraw my attention and withhold my support. I can pretend that “everything is awesome” and that I can stop worrying and be happy. In short, I can use social and informational means to “opioid” my existence without investing in the chemicals.

So, I am personally convicted by this text and led to look for the marks of faithful stamina included here. It is clear that truth produces faithful stamina and self-deception reduces it. It is clear that informed discernment produces faithful stamina and superficial panic reduces it. It is clear that authentic community produces faithful stamina, and personal isolation reduces it. After all, the “you’s” addressed in this text are indeed plural.

I depend, for example, on my Antiracism book study group with which I meet weekly for conversation and accountability. We have been meeting for more than a year at this point. If it were not for that group, I would be far less motivated to continue growing and studying, practicing and advocating for my own Antiracist growth and changes in my world. That group continues to connect me as well to the larger community of Antiracist thinking and action through the resources we discuss.

Alert attention produces faithful stamina, and sullen slumber reduces it. This is not an exhortation to ongoing hypervigilance. Luke 21 is not an invitation to faith-based PTSD. Instead, this is about willing, patient, and prayerful mindfulness. When the physical threats are real, it may be necessary to flee to the mountains. The Gentiles of our own time may well triumph for a season, and that season may need to ripen to fulfillment. But alert attention – nourished by humble prayer – is the stance of Jesus followers for the long haul.

Just as holistic pain management is still a hard sell in the larger medical community (especially when pills are so much easier and so much more popular with us as consumers), so sitting with the pain of the world and exercising faithful stamina is not the response of choice for some “Christians” in the United States at this point. It is no wonder that we fall into the traps of polarization and prejudice that ensnare us.

This collision of worldviews takes place in the headlines on a daily basis and will be focused to a hard point around holiday tables this week. I’m not at all good at acknowledging either physical or social pain, so this is a gritty text for me. It’s good that we begin our Advent journey with this call to faithful stamina. So, I pray that I might lift up my head in the face of the pain and trust that my/our redemption is at hand.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context. Fortress Press, 2003.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Kendi, Ibram X. How to Be an Antiracist. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Lalkhen, Abdul-Ghaaliq. An Anatomy of Pain: How the Body and the Mind Experience and Endure Physical Suffering. NewYork: Scribner, 2021.

Sleeth, Natalie. “Hymn of Promise.”

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2006.

West, Audrey.


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Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 3); November 21, 2021

The Torn Curtain

Menéndez-Antuña reminds us that in the Markan composition, we hear that “Jesus breathes his last” (NRSV) two times in three verses (Mark 15:37,39). These two mentions sandwich the description of the tearing of the “curtain” or “veil” in the Temple. “But Jesus, emitting a great cry, expired. And the curtain of the Temple was torn into two from above to below. But when the centurion who was standing opposite him saw that he had expired in this way, he said, ‘Truly, this man was a Son of God’” (Mark 15:37-39, my translation).

One of the drawbacks of attending to these verses only in the broad and long readings of Holy Week is that we have neither the time nor the inclination to explore the details of the script. We find here yet another Markan sandwich or intercalation, albeit a small one compared to the others in the composition.

The Markan composer wants us to hear the intimate connection between Jesus’ expiration and the Temple’s exposure. I am using alliteration in this description because I think that was the intention of the Markan composer as well. It’s hard to capture in a translation (although I will keep trying). But both the verb forms in the verses for “to expire” and the verb for “to tear” begin with the same letter and are in the same tense and person. The Markan composer has devoted precise attention to the exquisite details of these verses.

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Menéndez-Antuña reads this part of the script in two ways. He has first suggests that the tearing of the curtain is “a symbol referring to the world’s collapse in terms of Jesus’ relationship to the temple. I further propose,” he continues, “that it is a metaphor for the destruction of the victim’s body right at the moment of language’s annihilation” (page 19). Everybody has been talking up a storm to this point, he notes. But now one voice will be left in the silence – a voice that calls Jesus (whatever tone we might attribute to the centurion’s utterance) a “son of God.”

“The cry of dereliction (Mark 15:34), the tearing of the veil (Mark 15:38), and the victim’s outcry with his last breath (Mark 15: 37.39) bespeak literary moments when authorial imagination captures crushed victimhood,” Menéndez-Antuña writes, “when the inevitable expressive nature of the author’s written word grasps the ineffable essence of the victim’s inner world” (page 20).

He has connected the torturous process of Jesus’ death to the lived experiences of victims of torture in Latin America in ways that most commentators would avoid at all costs. The result of this avoidance, he argues, is a limited understanding of the text and the experience of Jesus as the victim of torture. He argues that “qualified interpreters ultimately fail to take the crucifixion for what it really is: the peak of a long, painful, carefully articulated process of torture geared to destroy the victim’s inner and outer worlds, thoughts and language, flesh and bones, past and future” (page 21).

Why would we contemporary interpreters and preachers cooperate in this avoidance of the crucifixion as it really is? I think that one reason must be that we contemporary (White, Male, North American) interpreters and preachers find ourselves primarily on the side of the torturers rather than on the side of the victims. There is strong evidence, for example, of American material support for the Pinochet regime in Chile, perhaps extending to the active support of the torture program and policy. Numerous other examples of United States support for Latin American dictatorships can be cited and documented.

While the use of torture is illegal on American ground, that has not stopped us from using it on other pieces of property. That is the real rationale for offshore installations to hold suspected terrorists and other presumed threats to our national security. In such facilities, the techniques of waterboarding, stress positioning, forced nudity, threats to the individual and their family, sleep deprivation and loud music for days on end, prolonged solitary confinement and confinement in small spaces have been employed during the last twenty years.

Of course, we need not go offshore to remember and thus witness the use of torture by White Christian Americans. We need only remember the history of lynching Black people in this country since 1865. I would refer you to the report produced by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), Lynching in America (Third Edition). That report documents nearly 4400 “racial terror lynchings” in the United States between 1877 and 1950.

“Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation,” the report writes, “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” These lynchings were given a variety of social justifications. But they were intended to control a subject population through the public application of torture and execution enacted on black bodies in that local community.

The phenomenon of “public spectacle lynchings” has the greatest similarity to the torture and death of Jesus as reported in the Markan composition. “At these often festive community gatherings,” the EJI report notes, “large crowds of whites watched and participated in the Black victims’ prolonged torture, mutilation, dismemberment, and burning at the stake.” One of those “public spectacle lynchings” took place in Omaha, Nebraska, for example, when in 1919 Will Brown was shot, his body hanged, drug through the streets and mutilated, and then burned beyond recognition.

It should be impossible for us contemporary White American Christians to reflect on Jesus’ torture and death without grappling yet again with the deep resemblance between that torture and death and the torture and death involved in lynching. If we cannot do it ourselves, James Cone has made the connection in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, one of the most important works of biblical interpretation and constructive theology in English in the twentieth century.

“Christians, both white and black, followed a crucified savior,” Cone writes. “What could pose a more blatant contradiction to such a religion than lynching? And yet,” he notes, “white Christians were silent in the face of this contradiction” (page 96). In fact, White Christians were not “silent” so much as celebratory. For example, there is the announcement in a 1919 New Orleans paper that “3,000 Will Burn Negro.” The headline declared that “John Hartfield will be lynched by Ellisville Mob at 5 o’clock this afternoon” (see the EJI report). Silence is not the word I would use here.

The magazine of the NAACP, The Crisis, made the connection between crucifixion and lynching with regularity. For example, when the magazine reported the lynching of Will Brown mentioned above, they made the connection with a photograph. In the December 1919 issue one can find a photo of Brown’s burned and mutilated body, surrounded by grinning and triumphant White Omaha men. The photo was captioned “The Crucifixion in Omaha.” You can find that photograph and the related report here.

“It was not easy for blacks to find a language to talk about Christianity publicly,” Cone writes, “because the Jesus they embraced was also, at least in name, embraced by whites who lynched black people. Indeed,” he continues, “it was white slaveholders, segregationists, and lynchers who defined the content of the Christian gospel” (page 118). Unless we White interpreters make the connections and acknowledge our history, we will continue to define the Christian gospel in a way that excludes the tortured and silences their voices.

This is a matter of the ethics of interpretation and of what Menéndez-Antuña refers to as “the ethics of accounting for torture” (page 21). “The historiographical question then comes into sharp focus,” he writes, “why do we, historians and literary critics, talk about torture in the past in ways we find ethically deficient when we talk about torture in the present?” (page 23). I think that’s a question for us as biblical interpreters and preachers as well.

“A symbol of death and defeat,” Cone writes, “God turned [the cross] into a sign of liberation and new life. The cross is the most empowering symbol,” he argues, “of God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices. Christians must face the cross,” Cone concludes, “as the terrible tragedy it was and discover in it, through faith and repentance, the liberating joy of eternal salvation” (page 156).

Of course, this means that we too (who claim to be Jesus followers) must embrace that loving solidarity with “the least of these.” At the moment one declares that necessity, however, the interpreter moves from preaching to meddling. This is why it is comfortable to hold the reality of Jesus’ cross at arm’s length and to maintain it as symbol, metaphor, theory, and jewelry.

Menéndez-Antuña is speaking about scholarly interpretation, but he could just as well describe much of my preaching when he writes, “To various degrees, however, these approaches overlook the irreducible reality of pain during torture, its inexpressibility and the dilemma that it poses to language. In other words,” he continues, “they decenter the victim’s pain and leave questions about the literary representation of agony unaddressed. And they do so,” he argues, “despite the text’s heavy emphasis on locating the victim at the center of the forces of torture” (pages 23-24).

If we take the Markan composition on its own terms, up close and personal, we will be changed. “Faith that emerged out of the scandal of the cross,” Cone writes, “is not a faith of intellectuals or elites of any sort. This is the faith of abused and scandalized people,” he says, “the losers and the down and out” (page 160). Perhaps that is why this text is submerged rather than studied.

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito:

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J.

Diggers, Ira Brent.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition).

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.”


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Faith in the Future — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 1:1-37

Dr. Halford Luccock taught at Yale Divinity School in the early part of the last century. In his book, Unfinished Business, Luccock tells the story of Flagstaff, Maine. Residents learned that their small town was to be flooded as part of a dam project. Soon they stopped all improvements and repairs to their property. Gradually the town fell into ruin. “What was the use of painting a house,” one observer said, “if it was to be covered with water in six months? Why repair anything when the whole village was to be wiped out?”

Luccock concluded: “Where there is no faith in the future, there is no power in the present.” Of course, the reverse is true as well. Faith in the future means power in the present. I hope you will take that thought with you today. Faith in the future means power in the present.

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We Christians are future-oriented people. “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” Alice asked the Cheshire cat in Wonderland. “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where–” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

Lots of folks and forces want to tell us where to go. Chiefly they use fear as a way to steer us. We should always be suspicious of anyone who leads by fear. Jesus warns us against them. “Many will come in my name,” Jesus tells us, “and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” Don’t be alarmed, Jesus tells us. Don’t worry about what you will say or do.

“The content of revelation is the reality of heaven,” Pablo Richard writes, “that is, the transcendent world of the presences of God in history. The opposite of revelation is covering up,” he continues, “what today we would call ideology. Ideology serves to conceal injustices and legitimize domination. Apocalypse un-conceals the world of the poor and legitimizes their struggle for the reign of God, which is life and liberation. This liberation is therefore,” he concludes, “good news for the poor” (page 37).

When an ideological system perceives challenges and threats to itself, it responds first with falsehood. I can’t help but think of the pseudo-messianic claims of the previous president, for example. “I alone can fix it,” he declared in 2016. I live in a neighborhood where there is flag promoting the candidacy of that former president in 2024 with the slogan, “Saving America Again.”

A threatened ideological system will seek to displace the blame for problems on to outside agents and structures. Every autocrat needs a credible and demonic enemy or two. “Wars and rumors of wars” are useful for maintaining the level of anxiety necessary to keep people from risking resistance.

Jesus is the Lord of the future. We dare not be taken in by those who promise peace and power at the price of tyranny. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we are called to resist the attraction of big buildings and big egos and big empty promises.

This is the danger–worshiping the gifts of God rather than God the giver. David Lose puts it this way: “in times of confusion, challenge, and distress, we will not only be overly impressed by the symbols of power around us…but we will also take many of the delights and gifts of this life and seek to find our security in and through them rather than in the One who gave them to us in the first place.”

There’s no future in the worship of power, security and safety. If we follow that road, it doesn’t matter where we go. 

Faith in the future means power in the present. Of course, for Christians our faith is not in just any old future. Later in Mark 13, the gospel writer declares that God will triumph over sin, death and the devil in the end. Jesus will return triumphant over all the powers of destruction, despair and darkness. We see that future fulfilled in Jesus’ cross and resurrection. That is the future we expect in faith.

The proper response to that Good News is to know that the proper time is now fulfilled and that the Kin(g)dom of God has drawn near. Jesus calls us to “change our minds” and put our trust in that Good News. If apocalyptic is an uncovering of what’s really going on, then the ability to see, hear, and understand what’s really going on requires that changed mind, which goes by the humble title of “repentance.”

The Markan composition is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That Good News can only be appropriated by a change of mind that puts living and dying trust in that Good News. The “old order” is dissolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the suddenness of catastrophe. It takes trained and formed eyes to see and ears to hear the rustles of the beginning that is really closer to us than our own breath.

Faith in the future means power in the present.

In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.

After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question – and for very good reasons.

After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.

Faith in the future means power in the present.

What does this mean for us? “Apocalyptic discourse provides the resources for Jesus’ followers to form and maintain their identity as those who proclaim the gospel in the context of a hostile environment and who live self-sacrificially even in the face of death,” Ruth Shively concludes. “Mark gives the audience eyes to see what human vision would otherwise miss about the experience of rejection, suffering, domination and power, in order to shape a new community, inspire it to hope, and compel it to action” (pages 402-403).

Identity is perhaps the fundamental field of struggle in American culture at this time. What does it mean to be a “real American”? What does it mean to be a “real Christian?” What does it mean to be a “real man” or a “real woman”? People have been asking those questions for the last hundred years or so in a variety of venues, but there is a particular and sometimes violent urgency to the questions these days.

Will we White American Christians, for example, continue to assert that being White American Christians (with a firm commitment to fixed gender identities and roles as well) is the definition of and norm for what it means to be fully and authentically human? That has been the perception and perspective of our community for the last five hundred years. But it seems that this perception and perspective are passing away – or at least that they should be passing away.

Will we economically privileged Christians assert that a capitalist model is the only way to describe and organize what a faithful congregation looks like? Will we maintain our idolatries of numbers and real estate, of “profits” and success at the expense of love for God and love for neighbor? So far, that is the order of the day. But Christian bodies that maintain these perceptions and this perspective are passing away, and some are doing so rather quickly.

Will I embrace the likely discomfort and perhaps even the suffering that real changes in perception and perspective will produce for me? Am I ready for life as I have known it to pass away (and good riddance)? I’m not at all sure of that. I think I am continuing to look for the community that will help me to find that identity. But will I take yes for an answer when I find it?

Faith in the future means power in the present.

In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a park Bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”

“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think.” He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”

Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”

Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Faith in the future means power in the present.

The truth is, as Douglas John Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it and live it. Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda.

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Men in Black movie script:

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 4); October 31, 2021

You Can Be Replaced, You Know

Mark 12:28-34 provides an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the parallel accounts in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. As we view these texts together (that is, “synoptically,”) we can get more of a sense of the intentions, emphases, and themes of each of the gospel composers.

My first exegetical course at Wartburg Seminary was “Luke’s Revision of Mark,” taught by Dr. Ray Martin, of blessed memory. The course was a revelation and epiphany for me in understanding how texts work in the Gospel accounts.

In retrospect, I think the title of the course probably claimed too much, however. Of course, Luke revised some materials from his “copy” of the Markan script. We can see with little effort, for example, that Luke places our text in a very different setting than does Mark. The dynamics of the text and the relationships between the characters are different. If it weren’t for the great commandments in the text, we might wonder if they were related at all.

Photo by Anete Lusina on

But to say that Luke “revised” Mark is to create the impression that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” than the work of Matthew or Luke. That impression is what “originally” drew me to deeply into the Markan work. It appears to be the case that the Markan composition came into written form earlier than either the Matthean or the Lukan compositions. It also appears to be the case that Matthew and Luke had “copies” of the Markan composition, or at least parts of it, as they did their work.

My point, however, is that each of the Synoptic composers was working from a set of early and developing traditions. The Markan script is not significant merely because it is earlier in the timeline. The Markan composer has intentions, emphases, and themes not found in the Matthean or Lukan works. Matthew and Luke have their own intentions, emphases, and themes. It’s not that any of them got it “right” (or “wrong”) for that matter. Each is a distinctive witness, necessary for the witness and service of the Church through the ages.

One of the emphases in the Markan composition appears to be a focus on the Jerusalem temple. We get some of that focus here, especially in the scribe’s words in Mark 12:33b – that the double love commandments “is greater than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” What does that assessment mean for the scribe in the story itself? What does that assessment mean for those who first heard the Markan composition performed? And, of course, what does that assessment mean for us as contemporary hearers of the text?

A number of scholars argue that Jesus portrays himself in some way as replacing the Jerusalem Temple. I think we need to reflect carefully on that assessment. If we put ourselves into an historical space where both Jesus and the Temple are in operation (the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry), then it would seem that Jesus puts himself in competition with the Temple. His words and actions seem to reject the Temple and the Judaism associated with it. But that’s an anachronistic view of the Gospels.

Heil’s article is an excellent summary of the Temple theme in Mark 11-16 and will be a resource for our reflection from now until the end of this preaching year. Heil offers this conclusion after his examination of the various texts. “The Marcan narrative invites its audience to become the community that supplants and surpasses the temple by implementing in their lives Jesus’ teaching within the temple (11:1-12:44) and outside the temple (13:1-37), but they are able to do so only with the empowerment of Jesus’ death and resurrection (14:1-16:8)” (page 100, my emphasis).

Heil lays out the specifics of this Markan theme. In chapters 11 through 13, Jesus authorizes the listeners to become God’s new house of prayer for all peoples. Jesus calls them to pray with both faith and forgiveness. They are to be people who worship the God of the living, not the dead. They rely on Jesus as the cornerstone of this new temple. And this new temple is the place where authentic worship happens by means of total love for God and neighbor (see page 100).

Just as Bartimaeus cast away his cloak in order to follow Jesus, so the poor widow gives her whole life as an offering to God in the temple. That is the standard of discipleship in the new temple. That standard is possible, not because of human virtue, but because of God’s victory over death on the cross of Jesus. The curtain protecting the Holy of Holies is torn in two from top to bottom. And Jesus is loose in the world.

All of this is certainly true and an accurate reading of the Markan text. If, however, the Markan composition is coming into written form in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66 to 70 C.E., the “replacement” of the Temple is a non-issue. The Temple is in ruins. Jerusalem is destroyed. The Jewish rebels have been defeated and executed. There is nothing at that point for Jesus to “replace.”

Instead, the question, at least for Jewish Christians, really seems to be something more like this. Since the Temple is no more, now what do we do? I can’t help but think of Peter’s question in John 6 at this point. Lord, to whom shall we go? The issue is not, therefore, some kind of replacement or supercessionist theology. It’s a matter of a desperate search for an anchor in a chaotic and rapidly changing world.

Jesus is portrayed in each of the Gospels as that anchor, at least for those who follow him on the Way of the Cross and Resurrection. Hurtado argues that “in Mark 11-16 a claim surfaces again and again that Jesus in some way replaces the temple as the central place where God manifests himself” (page 202). Wright offers a similar perspective in his popular commentary (Kindle Locations 3046ff.). That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but this assessment can quickly lead into ascribing an anti-Jewish bias to the gospels.

I think Hurtado is guilty of the kind of anachronism I described above. “Mark’s readers would have seen the scribe as anticipating their belief that the temple rituals were expendable and thoroughly secondary to the higher obligations reflected in the two commandments cited. Jesus’ commendation of him,” Hurtado concludes, “seems to underscore this position” (page 202).

No, that doesn’t follow, from my perspective. If, in fact, temple rituals were impossible by the time of the Markan composition, then it makes no sense to argue that they were “expendable.” It would seem that early Christians maintained contact with the Temple and those rituals as long as that was possible. It was when the structures, system, and community in Jerusalem were destroyed that alternative ways of thinking had to be considered.

This process certainly must have begun prior to the Jewish War, at least for those Christians who were geographically separated from Jerusalem. Just as synagogue worship and community arose in the Diaspora following the destruction of the first temple, so Christians at a distance would likely have felt less need for and less allegiance to the Temple than did those who were closer. But the discussion in the Markan composition shows that the Temple was a theological challenge for the Markan community, regardless of where they were located.

Perhaps we can think about our own situation as the Church in the Western world. It’s not that most Christians really want to abandon Church as we’ve known it for the last five hundred years or so. Most of us were not looking for a seismic shift in our institutions (although we probably should have). Instead, the shifts are happening in spite of us and without us. The question is not what should replace what we have. The question is much more since the Church as we know it is going away, now what do we do?

The counsel we find in the Markan composition is to return to the core of our theology and practice. N. T. Wright asks, “when the crisis comes, what remains solid in your life and the life of your community? Wholehearted love of God and neighbor? Or the mad scramble of everyone trying to save their own skins?” (Kindle Location 3053).

We are preaching in a time of similar dislocation and even chaos for the Church in the Northern and Western world. The Covid-19 pandemic took people out of their traditional worship spaces and practices and forced us to consider new ways of doing and being Church. While it appears that many of us will return to our previous practices over time (unless some other crisis occurs), the question has been raised? How necessary are our buildings, our organizations, our practices and patterns?

We are preaching in a time when traditional lines of theological consensus are crumbling. Robert P. Jones has written, for example, that we are witnessing the end of White Christian America. I cheer that ending and hope the process accelerates. But for those of who were part of that structure, now what? If our five centuries of White Male Supremacist Christianity are over, if our dependence on the Doctrine of Discovery is a house built on sand, if we who have been so accustomed to being in charge for so long must give up the reigns of power, then what?

It’s not that the former consensus is being replaced. It is being destroyed. In the wake of that destruction, will we seek the central anchors of our confession – to love God with all our being and our neighbors as Christ loves us? That’s a question, perhaps, that this text engages for us.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi.

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34,

Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70,

HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100,

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

On Wanting the Wrong Things — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:32-45

James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”

Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.

Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

Photo by Ayyub Yahaya on

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.

There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.

We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.

The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.

The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.

The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.

Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.

If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.

Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.

It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.

Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.

We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.

When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.

Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.

“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.

Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.

Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.

In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.

Must be the right question.

The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.

Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

Another Friday with Phil

If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.

What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on

Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.

If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.

If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.

Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.

In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!

It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.

This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.

This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.

The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).

At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.

So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!

So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!

Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!

Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!

Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.

Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”

Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.

Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?

I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).

We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.

If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.

It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.

In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.

So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.”

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar).

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50,

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86,

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 5); October 17, 2021

Onside with Jesus

“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).

Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on

For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.

If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.

This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.

The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.

Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.

Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.

A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”

Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).

The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.

Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).

Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.

What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.

The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.

Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.

Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.

Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.

There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.

Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.

We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?

Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.”

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar).

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50,

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86,

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 3); October 10, 2021

The “I’s” Have It

I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.

Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.

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The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.

Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.

Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.

On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”

Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.

It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.

Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).

Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).

Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.

What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.

This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.

Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.

Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?

Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.

I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.

“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).

The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.

Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).

Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.

Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).

His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.

Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).

In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?

Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.

The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.

Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.”

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Skinner, Matt. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 3); September 26, 2021

Trip Hazards

Most commentators agree that Mark 9 is an unusual element of the gospel composition. It is likely a collection of sayings that the Composer has brought together into a set of instructions for disciples. The teaching section begins with Mark 9:30. We read in verse 31 that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the handing over, the judicial murder, and the Resurrection in his immediate future.

It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.

Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.

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(42) “’And he who might trip up one of those little ones who are putting their trust in me – it is better for him if a grinding stone (like that drawn by a donkey) would be placed around his neck and he would have been thrown into the sea.

“And,” Jesus continues in verse 42. That connection is omitted by the NRSV translators, and the separation is highlighted by a paragraph space in the text. But Jesus, in the Markan composition, links the kind cup of water to “these little ones who are putting their faith in me” (Mark 9:42). It is, in part at least, the rigid rejection of these eager outsiders which is a stumbling block to their continuing trust in Jesus.

Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.

Jesus’ response is, to understate the case, severe. If anyone trips up one of these newcomers on the way in, the consequence is massive. Being thrown into the sea wearing a giant millstone was a method of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. Jesus says, using hyperbole to get their attention, that such a fate would be preferable to the one that awaits the disciples if they impede the entrance of the “little ones” into the Kin(g)dom.

“Shit’s gettin’ real,” as one might say. It would seem that the behavior of at least some in the leadership of the Markan community was causing “little ones” in that community to question their trust in Jesus and perhaps even to leave the community in the midst of the stresses and strains of first-century Christian living. Capernaum, we have a problem.

I am thinking today of the trends in Christian church membership, church participation, and Christian faith commitments in the United States at the present time. The lines for all of those trends are headed down on the graph. As time goes along, the declines of the lines grow steeper. As I have noted before, the ELCA Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation projects that, based on current trends, my denomination will effectively cease to exist by 2050.

Well, denominations come, and denominations go.

In fact, the ELCA is the third variety of Lutheranism of which I have been a member in the last sixty-five years. As a denomination, we are living through the third major re-organization since 1988. I’m sorry for the disruption that causes in the lives of people who serve Jesus and his Church with faith, hope, and love (because it’s certainly not for the money). That disruption falls disproportionately on people of color and women who have served as ELCA staff, and that’s wrong.

That being said, this denominational decay is a feature of these larger national and societal trends. The Gallup organization reports that in 2020 church membership among U.S. adults fell below fifty percent of the population for the first time in the survey’s history. The study, in fact, charts self-reported membership in a (Christian) church, synagogue, or mosque. So, the numbers for Christians are even lower than the forty-seven percent measured in the survey.

In 1937, the number was seventy-three percent. It remained fairly stable until 2000. In the last twenty years, church membership as a percentage of U.S. population has moved from seventy percent to the reported 47 percent. Church, synagogue, and mosque membership has declined in this country during that time by one-third. The overwhelming majority of that decline has been in Christian denominations and congregations.

Well, why is that? The Gallup folks demonstrate that the decline is does not directly correlate to a decrease in belief in God. Nor is it purely a function of generational differences. Nor is it linked with any particular flavor of Christian theology or history. I think the data indicates that church membership and participation are declining in large part because we Christians (especially White Christians) are putting stumbling blocks in the way of people who might wish to have a trusting relationship with Jesus.

I hope you will read Robert P. Jones’ important book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, if you haven’t done so already. Jones does a masterful job of detailing how White Christianity has constructed and sustained White Supremacy in the United States. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent,” Jones argues, “they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).

White Christianity continues to move further in the direction of White Christian nationalism. “Christian nationalism,” writes Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians” (page 4). It’s tempting for us mainline types to think that White Christian Nationalism is a disease of the “evangelical” traditions. Sadly for us, it is alive and well in most of our historically mainline congregations.

Until churches get serious about repentance and repair when it comes to racism, there will be no reconciliation. And it’s not only reconciliation with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people that is at stake (although that is crucially important). Many of our own children are leaving our churches because they are sick and tired of trying to sit next to people who refuse to put Jesus’ words into action when it comes to White Supremacy in the churches.

Similar things can be said about our welcome of those who are excluded and rejected because of gender, orientation, economic class, age, and personal history. My experience is that most young people in the Church actually get what the Gospel means in behavioral terms. Since they don’t see churches and older Christians living according to the Gospel, they’re headed for the exits.

As this exodus continues, (historically White) Christian churches become increasingly older, Whiter, and more socially and politically conservative. We are, it seems to me, caught in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Our Christian behavior trips up the “little ones” in our midst. Out they go. So, there are more of us to do the “tripping.” Disaffection increases, and the reactionary rump of the Church gets larger. I suspect we passed the tipping point some time ago, and it’s too late for many congregations.

Yes, I am pessimistic about specific religious institutions. And…and…and I am always wildly optimistic about the power of the Good News of Jesus to change lives and change the world. It’s just that much of that power of change is being applied outside the boundaries of long-established institutions and structures. We American Christians are surrounded by people who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name but are not following us.

We can follow John’s example and complain that they’re not part of the club. I understand that impulse. Many of these unnamed exorcists around us are not church members. Many of them are, I am sure, not Jesus followers, at least in their faith commitments. But these unnamed exorcists are certainly doing the work of Jesus, whether they know it or not.

Jesus tells John to look at the results, not the label. That’s our call as well. But, like the first disciples, we have some trouble getting out of our own way. As a result, we often end up flat on our faces, lying at the edge of hell on earth.

More on that next time.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.