Are We Celebrating Easter Right?

For Easter, many preachers will get into their pulpits and tell their congregations that the appropriate response to Jesus’ death and resurrection is gratitude. We must be thankful for forgiveness (for our individual sins), we must be thankful for assurance (meaning it doesn’t matter how we live), and we must be thankful for salvation (which is interpreted as our ticket to heaven).  While I certainly believe in our being grateful for what Jesus’ death and resurrection offers humanity, is that really the primary response that God is looking for. The next paragraph is probably not for you if you prioritize the ‘Sunday School’ answer over Jesus’ straightforward and clear teaching. (Can’t say I didn’t warn you!)

Contrary to popular opinion, the primary response in scripture to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is not gratitude (although we should certainly be grateful) but it is imitation. Jesus, over and over again, invited those around him to follow him and imitate his way of life which inevitably leads to crucifixion (aka being crushed by hegemony and power). Jesus’ primary call to become his follower has always been about taking up the cross. This is primarily an ‘opting out’ of the worlds way of being and doing. Opting out of its violence, oppression, greed, apathy, selfishness and then ‘opting in’ to God’s kingdom of  servanthood, jubilee justice, holistic peace, forgiveness (of others sins and financial debts), and a courageous love not known by this world. Imitating the Way of Christ, in direct confrontation with this world, even to the point of death is what we have been called to as disciples of Jesus.

So as we celebrate Easter and the Resurrection of our Lord, let it not be a comfortable and complacent remembering, but may that memory of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection inspire and invigorate us to participate in the New Humanity and the New Way Jesus has provided for us.

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Politics of Poor Plight and Prophetic Priorities: A Brief Response to Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney recently made an interesting comment about his lack of concern for poor people. According to him, we need not care about poor people because America has a safety net. Rather, he is concerned with America’s middle class because they are the ones who are struggling. Yes, that’s right, the people with more resources than poor people are the ones who are hurting most in this economy, according to Mitt’s logic.

While I am thankful that we do have a safety net in America, considering the thousands who have died from the famine in the Horn of Africa in the past year, I can not fathom how one could argue that poor people are doing well in America and the middle class is the group suffering most. This is so ridiculous that I won’t spend any more on that point.

However, as a Black Anabaptist Christian shaped by the Israelite scriptures and it’s fulfillment in the person of Jesus, I have particular priorities that shape my own ethics/politics. My Jubilee-Shalom-Kingdom of God politics must always prioritize “the least of these” among us, to not do so would be to disregard God’s  intervention and revelation in the world, particularly the Bible. The Bible clearly keeps watch of, defends, and centralizes the concerns of poor people throughout the entire narrative. To be in continuity with the God of scripture, and specifically Jesus the Crucified One, we must embrace the same ethics concerning poverty that is consistently woven throughout scripture. It compels us to embody Jesus’ story now in our own contexts. A faithful reading of scripture demands from us particular prophetic priorities to enact if we are to claim to be Christian (Christ-like), and they are not really optional. One of those ethical priorities is our care, sacrifice, and provision for the poor. To state that you do not care for poor people is to reject the Israelite narrative and ultimately to reject Jesus, that is assuming we can not slice him up and then choose which parts we like and which we do not like as if Jesus were a buffet line.

Sorry Mitt, but you have absolutely no credibility with me. (Neither do any of the other candidates, so please don’t take this as an endorsement for anyone). Finally, let me make myself clear by stating that as far as I am concerned, both major political parties in America are off the mark when it comes to the issue of poverty. One party (in my eyes) is aggressively against poor people, and the other (again from my perspective) pays lip service and offers a few minimal government programs, however each fall drastically short of the Jubilee paradigm from the Old Testament that Jesus continues to echo in his own ministry. As Christians, our ethics and political priorities ought not be confined to the arguments of the day between two imperial political parties, but ought to begin and end with theological vision rooted deeply in scripture and particularly in Jesus the Christ, as they are manifested in love for God and others.

Here is a tiny fraction of the biblical passages that remind us that we ought to prioritize the poor as a part of our Christian ethics and witness.

Psalms 82:3 “Defend the cause of the poor and the fatherless! Vindicate the oppressed and suffering!”

James 2:5-8 “Listen, my dear brothers and sisters! Did not God choose the poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor! Are not the rich oppressing you and dragging you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme the good name of the one you belong to? But if you fulfill the royal law as expressed in this scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.”

Dueteronomy 15:11 “There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.”

Proverbs 14:31 “The one who oppresses the poor insults his Creator, but whoever shows favor to the needy honors him.”

Luke 6:20 “Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God belongs to you.”

Ezekiel 16:49  “‘See here – this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food, and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.”

Galatians 2:10 “They requested only that we remember the poor, the very thing I also was eager to do.”

1 John 3:17 “But whoever has the world’s possessions and sees his fellow brother in need and shuts off his compassion against him, how can the love of God reside in such a person?”

Kenya: Four Kids and $25

One particular day while in Kenya, a few of us had the privilege of sneaking off the campus with Peter Odanga, the Word of Life Director, and driving up into the village in the hills. He would simply yell “candy” in Swahili as we passed by people’s huts and the kids would come running. We didn’t preach to them, all we did was give them candy, for which they were unbelievably grateful. From what I gathered, Peter does these runs about once a month, and I think it is his way of being a familiar face to those in that village.

We drove further along and then eventually parked, got out and begin walking through a field of high grass. On the other end of the field we came right into the middle of a families dwelling. Everyone was barefoot, a man was working hard on a piece of furniture I believe, and we were greeted very graciously by the women and children. They brought chairs out for us to sit down and by the time we were sitting the men had come over as well. Peter translated Swahili and English both ways as we spoke back and forth with this family.

During our discussion we eventually found out that four of the kids there were no longer able to attend school because they could not afford the school fees.  We asked how much it would cost to put them all back in school for the rest of the year. The answer was devastating. $25! The cost to put all four of them back in school again for the year was only $25. I don’t think my heart sank any lower my whole time there as it did at that point. We obviously offered to pay the fee and Peter said that it would be fine to do so. The family was so grateful, but I knew that we were only giving out of our excess, and we did not deserve the appreciation they gave. The head of the family actually climbed up a coconut tree and cut down several coconuts for us, chopped the tops off and served us. This was a humbling experience. It was one of those humbling and formational moments that a person can never forget.

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!

Hope you enjoyed the interesting rendition of King’s famous Mountaintop speech given the day before his assassination. As it is often said, while may don’t have work or school today, let it be a day on rather than a day off.  A day on of service, compassion, love, and sacrifice for your fellow neighbor, as we reflect the significance of King’s prophetic life.

Joining God’s Activity

Exodus 6:6-8 “Therefore, tell the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord. I will bring you out from your enslavement to the Egyptians, I will rescue you from the hard labor they impose, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you to myself for a people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from your enslavement to the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob – and I will give it to you as a possession. I am the Lord!’”

 

This passage is a great illustration not only of what God has done for the Israelite community, but representative of who God is and how he has actively worked throughout history on behalf of all humanity. God has been actively intervening in creation, taking and choosing sides, always favoring the weak. In these verses we see that he has been revealing himself as the One True God, liberating and redeeming the oppressed and enslaved, forming lasting covenant relationships, and journeying with his people all the way to the Promised Land.

Let us turn not only our eyes but our loyalty to the LORD, joining him in his liberating activity. Let us take note of how God has worked and is working so that we may align ourselves in continuity with the very work of God in our communities and neighborhoods.

 

 

Isaiah 1:11-17 (NET Translation)

“Of what importance to me are your many sacrifices?” says the Lord. “I am stuffed with burnt sacrifices of rams and the fat from steers. The blood of bulls, lambs, and goats I do not want. When you enter my presence, do you actually think I want this – animals trampling on my courtyards? Do not bring any more meaningless offerings; I consider your incense detestable! You observe new moon festivals, Sabbaths, and  onvocations, but I cannot tolerate sin-stained celebrations! I hate your new moon festivals and assemblies; they are a burden that I am tired of carrying. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood.

Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!

Are You Turning A Blind Eye To People’s Suffering?

This is a verse from Talib Kweli’s song “I Try”. He is a thoughtful and creative lyricist… and a breath of fresh air when compared to the main stream rap crap that is on the radio.  Pay close attention to what he’s sayin…

Yo, the things I’m seein’ on the news is insane
A stock broker shoot his kid and throw himself in front of a train
A mother leave her baby home for two weeks all by himself
Three years old, eatin’ ketchup and mustard, cryin for help
Tryin’ to bring your struggle to life
The label want a song about a bubbly life
I have trouble tryin’ to write some sh*t
To BANG in the club through the night
When people suffer tonight

Lord knows I try

Where are you at? Are you focused on others and that “people suffer tonight” or are you focused on your self and chasing “a bubbly life”?

We Had Some Church Today

I can remember time after time leaving the church service on Sunday, hearing one of the older saints in the church yell out that “we really had some church today”, or actually “chuch” would be the more accurate vernacular. Typically that meant that when the believers had gathered together, everything was right on point. Worship was inspiring and God-adoring, the choir sang their hearts out, and the preacher stirred the congregation with a Word that was really powerful. New people probably even came forward and asked Jesus to come into their hearts as their very own personal savior. That sounds great doesn’t it…. sounds like a day full of church doesn’t it? Or was that really good church after all? On our best day, when we have our best voices singing in harmony, people are lifting hands and clapping, is God pleased? When have we had some good church?

Honestly, I question our understanding of good church. Do not get me wrong, I think God desires for us to come together regularly in His name. In fact Hebrews 10:25 tells us that we should not neglect coming together, however we should not so easily skip over verse 24 as many are in the habit of doing.It says “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (TNIV). The emphasis of the verse doesn’t seem to care as much about the nature of our coming together, but the fruit of our coming together. It seems clear that the fruit of our coming together, is the producing of a community that is loving others and is doing good deeds. Our gatherings are not for the purpose of feeling good on the inside nor merely just becoming better people.

It goes way beyond that, we gather to get something going, to jump start a movement. When we gather we are supposed to be inspired, provoked, and ignited. However we are not provoked merely on how to pray better or read our bible more. (Important things to do, don’t confuse what I am saying). If our coming together only provokes our personal piety, personal spiritual lives, and personal morality without breaking into the sphere of loving others and doing good deeds then we have missed it. It seems that our coming together regularly should be shaping us as a people that go out into our communities bringing relief to those with aids, adopting children who have been neglected, standing up against injustice, living counter-cultural lives that challenge powerful institutions that oppress their workers.

Our gatherings need to be formed for the very purpose that “we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” And if that is not happening when we gather, then we have hardly had some “chuch”. Maybe our having good church is less about what goes on inside the walls of our facilities that we gather in and more about what happens once we leave. Maybe it’s about our engaging our neighbors with love, helping that elderly woman fix that broken faucet in her house. Mabye it’s about taking some time to spend with that young boy who wanders the streets at all hours, without any guidance and mentors involved in his life. Maybe it’s spending the time to help someone create a good resume and help them network to get a job. (Since getting a job is more about who you know, than what you know.)

Hardly do we see Jesus inside the synagogue, and the few times he was, there were attempts or at plots on his life because he taught or stood up for justice. If Jesus spent most of his time and “ministry” outside the walls of the church engaging people, meeting them on their terms while trying to liberate and empower them from the burdens, sin, and sickness of life, why have we revolved our lives around what goes on inside the church. I think its time for us to encourage one another that we can’t spend all our time at church meetings and services throughout the entire week, but instead urging each other to be active in our communities as salt and light as we love and do good deeds. Once the church has left the building, and we are in our communities serving and loving folks. We can call each other up on the phone and talk about how “we had some church today!!!”.

(Hebrews 10:24-25)