Romans 02 – Casting the First Stone on the Patriarchy

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. (Read the rest of today’s Bible Chapter here!)

I was going to write about circumcision today, but given that Paul talks about that a lot, I’ll talk about it another time.  I am doubling down on the blog in 2020, because I believe that I am sharing a message that needs to be heard: and that is a message of radical love.  I suppose most Christians claim to be doing that, and many of them are.  What I am saying on this platform is probably not all that unique, and I dare to hope there are a lot of Christians out there that hold my same views. But there are other so-called Christians who spew vitriol and hate, using Bible passages out of textual and historical context to back up their selfish lies.  And there are lots of them.  So even if this blog is just one of many other progressive Christians saying basically the same thing, at least I am adding my voice to the fight.

I worry a lot. I worry that some people may dismiss the message of “radical love” as an easy one.  It’s easy to profess that you love your neighbor when nothing is required of you other than to say the words.  And really, that’s all a blog is: a bunch of words.  I also worry that other people will dismiss my writings as deliberately controversial in an effort to get attention, that I’m out here seeking alternative interpretations just to be contrary and rock the boat.

But radical love is not easy, and it should rock the boat.  It means putting everyone on an even playing field.  While that more often than not means lifting someone up, it can also mean tearing someone down.  This is why this blog has been renamed from A Liberal Christian Reads the Bible to God Vs. The Patriarchy.  The mission remains the same: I will still be reading the Bible one chapter at a time, in an order that has not been pre-determined, to find evidence of God’s radical love of all humanity.  I am here to counter-act racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia; economic, ecological, and social injustice.  I am here to help tear down the patriarchy.  If that wasn’t perfectly clear before, I hope the re-branding makes it so.

In today’s chapter, Paul tells us not to judge another because in doing so we condemn ourselves.  Well, guess what? I’m here to cast the first stone, anyway.  I stand guilty in just about any way you could charge me:  I eat at McDonalds and do not live a plastic-free life.  I have an iPhone and don’t know who made all my clothes.  I apathetically follow main-line news and therefore only hear about global calamities that effect white people -and then only the “big ones.”  I only sort of go to church, and have real doubts about a lot of the historicity and originality of the Bible.

But even with all my faults and all my doubts, I still believe in the message of radical love, and truly believe God wants us to dismantle any society that has become unjust. As unglamorous as it sounds, the best way to effect that sort of change is to do it small: brick by brick, or chapter by chapter.  Nature, society, and the economy all abhor a vacuum.  If I could snap my fingers and instantly end corn subsidies; outlaw gas-powered vehicles, and establish a universal basic income of $24,000 per person, the cascading effects of those changes would cause millions to starve, ignite a global war like you’ve never seen, and probably destroy the world. But that doesn’t make these ideas worthwhile goals, anyway, if we work towards them steadily and responsibly.  Asking – demanding – more power, resources, and respect from the people who have more and giving said things to those who have less.

I know I’m in a position of privilege and I’ll have to change, too.  Perhaps pay more in taxes, consume a little less or a little lower on the food and supply chains, make more room at the table for new voices to be heard.  But time and again it’s been proven that the more diverse an organization is, the better is survives.  Different ideas and problem solving skills can be put to work when they are allowed to exist, allowing for more innovation, responsiveness, organizational gain and overall satisfaction.  Isn’t that what we should want that for Christianity? Our country? Humanity?  It seems worth the trade-off.  Today I re-invite you to join me as I use the Bible to think about ways to make the changes the world so desperately needs.

Ezekiel 37 – God’s Redemptive Love

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

I said, “Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord.’”

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.’”

15 The word of the Lord came to me: 16 “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Belonging to Joseph (that is, to Ephraim) and all the Israelites associated with him.’ 17 Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.

18 “When your people ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ 19 say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick. I will make them into a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ 20 Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on 21 and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. 22 I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. 23 They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

24 “‘My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees. 25 They will live in the land I gave to my servant Jacob, the land where your ancestors lived. They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.’”

If this isn’t the perfect Bible story for the Sunday before Halloween I don’t know what is. A spooky valley full of dead bones gets turned into zombies – okay, maybe not brain-eating zombies but basically, for a minute there, these bone are un-dead: living but not breathing flesh.  Then a supernatural force comes through the winds and turns these zombies into a living army.  Yikes.

But that’s just the surface of the story, and it ignores the whole second half of this chapter.  Really, this is one of the most hopeful, redemptive chapters I’ve read in a while.  In it, God restores the dead, joins the scattered and squabbling tribes of Israel, and establishes a holy, everlasting covenant of peace.

Is this chapter to be taken literally, though?  Will God literally open our graves and raise up our bones?  Will God literally rejoin the houses of Ephraim and Judah?  Will David come back from the dead, too, to rule over this new kingdom and will God literally dwell there?

I see God as capable of all things, so yes, certainly it is possible to take this chapter literally.  But if we’re just sitting around waiting for that day, I think we kind of miss the point.  Let’s start from a historical perspective.  This passage was most likely written after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.  So a lot of Ezekiel’s prophecy was looking towards the rebuilding of the temple in a more immediate sense, not an eschatological sense.  The temple was rebuilt around 516 BC., seventy years after it was destroyed.  Followers of Ezekiel could point to this as the fulfillment of his prophecy, and the promise of this chapter has been fulfilled and is not just another illustration of God’s good work, but nothing we’re waiting upon.  Now, let’s look at this chapter from a religious perspective. It can be argued that much of this-and the rest of Ezekiel’s prophecy-was fulfilled through the arrival of Jesus.  Jesus, a descendant of David, came to take on our sins, redeem us from the grave, and will return to rule over us in an eternal covenant of peace, as foretold by Ezekiel. So again, perhaps it has already been fulfilled and we’re waiting upon nothing.

While all of this fulfilled prophecy-whether it is a rebuilt temple or the coming of Christ- is awe-inspiring, I think it misses the larger point, which is the redemptive power of God’s love.  God can redeem us even from beyond the grave.  God can heal not only our own souls, but the souls of nations.  God wants to restore our hope, restore our peace.  It is not something that’s only going to happen at the end of the world.  This is something we are offered not only on a monumental scale, on a daily basis.

I was listening to The Liturgists Podcast the other day, and they were interviewing Father Richard Rohr, who published his latest book, Universal Christ, earlier this year.  (I haven’t read the book yet, but I’m eager to do so, and have it on hold from my library.)  During the interview, he talked about the difference between retributive justice and redemptive justice – I believe those were his two terms.  Rohr says Jesus offers redemptive justice: a justice that heals instead of punishes.  Many of the prophets, Rohr pointed out, start with preaching a retributive justice: the justice based on God’s wrath, hellfire-and-brimstone, death-and-destruction sort of justice.  But almost all of them arrive at a place of redemptive justice.  We can see that difference happening between the chapter we studied last week, which basically promised destruction for all people, and this week, which promises peace for all people.

What is it about God that makes these prophets arrive at a place of redemptive justice?  Love.  God’s holy love is undeniable in the long run.  It is my firm belief that the longer you sit with God, the more that becomes apparent.  I know, there are lots of religious people with hate in their hearts that could be used to disprove my point, but I don’t think they are truly sitting with God.  What they are doing is scouring the Bible for passages they can bend to their own wishes, or following the biases of a small-minded leader, anything to prop up their own world-view.

But even that narrow mindset cannot withstand God’s love.  There are plenty of stories of people who recognized how God’s message was being warped, and left whatever toxic religious climate was preaching it.  Exvangelical is a podcast, hashtag, and movement that deconstructs the more harmful elements of Evangelical societies.  I’m sad to say that many exvangelicals fully leave Christianity, but many also examine their beliefs and find a God that is loving and kind.  Thought leaders like Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, and the late Rachel Held Evans, among others, are helping shape the idea of a loving and inclusive God for those who may have doubts about Christianity at large.  Yes, there are many so-called Christians that still cling to their hate like a security blanket, but God’s love is wearing them down.

The most beautiful thing about God’s redemptive love is that we can be agents of it.  We have the power to forgive, to heal, to teach.  We can be living, breathing examples of God’s love, reborn just as Ezekiel’s army was.  How you, personally, might manifest this may be different than how I or someone else manifests it, but it remains true. We can be agents of God’s redemptive love through speaking out against the injustices of the world, by helping our neighbors and community, by teaching our kids what it means to be kind and inclusive.  If you’re not sure where to start, may I suggest just sitting with God.  Offer up a simple prayer, such as “God, how can I be an agent of change in this world?”  And then just be open to it.  The answer might be immediate or it might be revealed over time.  But it will come, and you will be doing your part to spread God’s love.

Matthew 10 – Jesus Brings a Sword

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—10 no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. 11 Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.12 As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13 If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. 17 Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. 18 On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. 19 But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, 20 for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

21 “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 22 You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.

24 “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master.25 It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!

26 “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. 27 What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. 28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.30 And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

32 “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.

34 “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn

“‘a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
36     a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’

37 “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

So my Biblical memory ends at v. 30 with that warm and fuzzy bit about meaning more to God than the sparrows, feeling all special because even the hairs on my head are numbered.  All this talk about bringing a sword? Fighting among families? I definitely forget reading that, ever.  Quite frankly, I don’t know what to do with it.

Part of me wonders if Jesus even actually said it.  Remember, the whole Bible is written by people.  It may have been divinely inspired, but it was recorded by decidedly fallible humans.  Matthew was a shrewd writer, and I don’t want to say he straight up fabricated a story, but it seems so off-message from the rest of what Jesus has said so far.  My main point of contention is I find the reference to the cross a little self-conscious.  True, crucifixion was a common form of execution back then, so the disciples would have been familiar with it, and Jesus’ words in v. 38 would have had meaning to them even before Jesus was crucified himself. But knowing that this Gospel was compiled after (well after, some say) Jesus’ death and resurrection makes me wonder if time colored Matthew’s memory of the event.

But then I wonder if I’m just being comfortable, and trying to fit Jesus into my own comfortable little box.  I like thinking of Jesus as a bringer of peace, a righter of wrongs. But it is true that father and son, daughter and mother, whole families do often turn against each other in the name of righteousness.  This passage immediately made me think of our own Civil War, and all the anecdotes I heard about two brothers fighting on different sides of the same battle, or young boys sneaking away from their Confederate families to fight in the Union army.  I wonder how many people back then thought that it must be the end of times, remembering Jesus’ words.  That that war was the sword Jesus promised to bring to Earth.

It’s a disconcerting passage, but upon reflection, I think it is still in keeping with Jesus’ teaching of love.  Whether Matthew embellished it or not doesn’t even really matter in the long run, because it is urging us to do the same thing: work to spread the good news.  Even if it means a break with your family, persecution, or even bodily harm unto the point of death, work to spread the good news of Jesus.  Of course this means the Gospel, and if anyone is made a believer in him through whatever work you do, that’s great!  But I’ll tell you my favorite saying when it comes to a lot of things, but especially when it comes to evangelizing:  A drowning man doesn’t need swim lessons, he needs a life-preserver.  In other words, I think Jesus would be most concerned that we are providing everyone with enough to eat, a safe place to live and work, and access to medical care. Only then, when they’ve stopped drowning in the trials this life brings, can we discuss loftier ideals.

That doesn’t sound like it should be so controversial, right?  But try enacting those policies in this country: We have escalating tensions – and death toll – at our Southern border as people are denied entry and even denied their own needed medications.  We still have over half a million people experiencing homelessness in this country every year, and those numbers are starting to creep back up again.  Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water.  People effected by these headlines, and millions of others I haven’t mentioned, are just struggling to survive.

The best way to make an impact on these problems isn’t to preach about Jesus, but to be an instrument of Jesus, and act.  And perhaps that does mean fighting.  I still don’t think Jesus is advocating violence as a solution, but he did advocate for radical non-violent resistance. So fighting hard for what you think is right by protesting, sit-ins, or disrupting family dinner to vocally disagree with racist Uncle Jimmy may be just as Christian as serving in a soup kitchen or filling an Angel Tree wish list.  I just prefer to be on the safe side, and offer any who needs it “even a cold cup of water.”  In other words, we may never know who among us is Jesus’ disciple, so why deny anyone dignity and equality?  And if we have to be vocal to the point of strife in our support of said dignity an equality, then perhaps we ourselves will become the righteous sword of Jesus.