A question both ancient and modern: Whose side is God on? –

 

Molly MarshallMy Sunday school class has been studying Jeremiah for the last several weeks. We usually hear these searing texts in Advent, but out of lectionary season, we soldier on. This prophet had a tough calling, and his words were met with disbelief and scoffing. His time of service is during the fall of Jerusalem, and the worst possible thing descends upon the people. The book of Jeremiah chronicles the dismantling of the northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The land promised by God will no longer be theirs – a grave, unsettling horizon.

The book of Jeremiah, which could cover up to 250 years of history, displays heavy editing by the Deuteronomists, those responsible for Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. The theology of the Deuteronomists is pretty concrete in terms of cause-effect. If you obey the covenant, you will be blessed. If you worship other gods, God will not protect you from your enemies. At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.

“At times, God may be more with the enemy of the people of God than their ally, more against them than for them.”

Such is the message of Jeremiah – more doom than comfort.

His nation could hardly swagger through the Ancient Near Eastern world as a super-power. A small nation, not particularly arrayed with the armies and weaponry that the Assyrian and Babylonian empires could boast, was vulnerable to attack. The location of the land, with its access to the Mediterranean Sea through its varied ports, made it even more attractive to those with plans for domination of the region.

Some scholars have suggested that one might read the whole of the Hebrew Bible through the lens of asking this one question: How did the covenant people fail to keep the land? And inexorably, these questions follow: Could not God preserve them from exile and captivity? Does all the blame fall on a faithless people?

Scholars of Jeremiah conclude that it is very difficult to find a coherent theme in this wide-ranging, prophetic text. Further, scholars of the Hebrew Bible struggle to construct any linear historical narrative out of the morass of judges, priests, prophets and monarchy. The episodes of covenant fidelity, followed by idolatry and everyone “doing what was right in their own eyes,” stain the pages that recount the roots of our present identity as Christians.

We know the challenge of reading ancient texts in a way applicable to our own context; yet, the questions raised by our forebears prompt our own examination of the times we are experiencing. We ask a similar question: Is the tumult of the nations an act of divine judgment or simply the working out of the fall to violence, which is the hallmark of sinful people? And, as Jeremiah queried: Whose side is God on?

Written as a retrospective analysis of what went wrong in the divided nation’s relationships with neighboring powers, the prophet and editors seemed to assume that God determined whoever won in the political-military fray. There are those who follow that viewpoint today, believing that God micro-manages the ongoing machinations of warring people.

“God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.”

For example, President Donald Trump’s step into North Korea was viewed by many as a bold overture toward peace, prompted by God’s favoring of this elected leader, as many white evangelicals continue to aver. Others viewed the incident as a fool’s errand, intended only to provide optics for a leader whose next move usually serves a measure of self-interest, not national security for either nation. Which is it?

I believe it is an over-reach to conscript God’s favor for our political calculations, as if God has a pre-determined plan for each discrete nation, political party or individual leader. Instead, God plays the long game, seeking to influence all toward justice, mercy and flourishing. Our prayers to God about present circumstances should prompt our own actions to mend the world. God is always on that side.

In a day when nationalism is on the rise around the world, modeled blatantly by the United States, it would be dangerous to claim God’s complicity in policies that do not think about the most vulnerable in the social contract. In the biblical vernacular, widows, orphans, the poor and the alien are the focus of God’s concern, as attested by the prophets who refuse to “tickle the ears” of those listening.

God’s providence in the affairs of humanity requires that we are full participants. As my former colleague, Frank Tupper, taught generations of seminary students, “God always does the most God can do.” God’s engagement with creation is compassionate. This “transforming engagement” calls humanity to do its part, and in the process we become ingredient in a larger vision of interacting factors in nature and history. This suggests that God has created space for us to do what only we can do, joining God’s side of justice and mercy.

*Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall was the featured speaker twice at the Hamrick Lectures at First baptist Church of Charleston. She is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

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Five U.S. Presidents; Five Great Americans – May 6, 2013 – ethicsdaily.com

I wrote this column six years ago and it is still true today. I just spent the 4th. of July with my sister, brother-in-law and their family. It is a great reminder of what a great country we have and who we are as a people. I could not get the picture of the five presidents to reproduce here. I need my son, Michael, Brandy or Lori to help me with that. The message is clear. We live in a great country. We may be divided at times over issues, but we are never divided in our love for our country.

The picture of President Obama standing with the four living former U.S. presidents at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas is a grand statement for us, and the rest of the world, as to whom we are. No one had to die for any one of them to take office. None was deposed by some despot.

Each took office as a result of a vote by a free people. Each has his strengths and each has his weaknesses. Although each of us has our preferences, only time will sift through the remains for an accurate judgment.

Each one separately, and all of them together, tell a great story. Although each of these men is flawed in some dramatic way, I am happy to be represented by any one of them.

Along with whatever baggage each man carries, he is a great American. He has stood the test. He has walked through the fire and emerged a winner.

Your vote may have been different from mine, but that is the point. We do not have to agree to live together in peace. We do not have to think the same or vote the same.

I am happy with the choices I made and would make the same choices again. I am sure that you feel the same way about your choices.

Those men can stand there together because each one knows fully the burdens that each one shouldered.

Each one knows the agony, heartache, sleepless nights and the great joy of serving the American people. Each one understands that one word from any one of them during his turn in office could have plunged the world into instant chaos.

These are good men. They are us. Soon, too soon, each one of them will leave us. As each one goes, we will mourn his passing.

We will remember his accomplishments. We will lament his failures. In many cases, we will regret not heeding some of his advice.

Each has taken his turn on the world stage. The country, our country, will endure.

We are a strong people. We are resilient. We are capable of unbelievable acts that dishonor our national conscience, but we are also capable of unbelievable acts of honor, kindness and love.

For a season, we divide ourselves into blue states and red states, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, gay and straight, but when some misguided individual or group tries to harm us, we become one people, indivisible.

I am proud of those five men pictured there because I am in the picture and so are you. We are all holding hands. When it matters, we are one.

I am for national health care, gun control and immigration reform, and I understand full well that you may not be. We will decide these issues at the voting booth.

Each of us will have the opportunity to state our case to anyone who chooses to listen. No one is forced to listen, and no one is forced to vote.

We are free to follow our consciences, but no one is forced to follow us. We are free to become involved, and we are free to sit on the sidelines.

I am free to worship as I choose, and I am free not to worship at all.

Sometimes in the heat of debate, we forget how fortunate we are. We are free to debate. That is a hard-won freedom.

Look, again, at these five men. With all of their faults and virtues, they are us.

I, for one, am giving thanks for them individually and collectively. You are free to join me.

 

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Sinners at the Laundromat* – Rev. Susan Sparks – Shiny Side Up

One Sunday morning a few weeks ago, while all good Christians were congregating in church, all evil sinners (including me) were congregating in the laundromat.

I thought we were safe until somewhere mid-spin cycle when the door to the laundromat opened, and a scarily clean-shaven gentleman walked in and said, “A blessed morning to you, brothers and sisters” (a warning sign, if ever there was one).

I could see he had a number of brochures in his hand, but I tried my best not to make eye contact. Sure enough, he came to me first. I think it was because of the t-shirt I was wearing that read: “Lead me not into temptation, I can find it myself.”

“Sister,” he asked in the most earnest of tones, “have you met Jesus?”

Not wanting to get into a whole thing about how I was an ordained Baptist minister on vacation in Wisconsin skipping church because I wasn’t Lutheran and, more importantly, was planning to go pan fishing afterward, I simply said, “No sir, I haven’t seen hide nor hair of Jesus this morning.”

He then handed me a tract with a picture of Jesus holding a tiny lamb that was looking a bit queasy, and said, “You know, Jesus can wash your sins away better than any of these machines.” And with that, he went to the sinner next to me at the industrial-sized dryer and started his pitch again.

Later, I thought about my new friend and his earnest attempts to save us. Was there a lesson here? Spiritual laundry, perhaps?

Consider the three categories of dirty clothes. First, things that don’t really need to be washed. If you are like me, you tend to occasionally leave clothes on the floor that aren’t dirty–ones you can put right back on and wear with pride. Similarly, there are things in our lives that don’t need cleaning, like our physical traits (signs of aging included), our ethnicities, our race, our gender. These are gifts from God that do not need to be washed; they need to be celebrated and worn with pride to celebrate our maker. As Psalm 139 tells us, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

Then there is the second category of laundry which just needs the delicate cycle with the least agitation. In regular laundry, these would be things like silk or polyester. In life, these would be things like mistakes, hurt feelings, or use of colorful language because you couldn’t get into your jeans that morning.

Don’t waste time getting agitated over this stuff. Use a short and delicate wash cycle. Acknowledge that you’re wrong; say you’re sorry and move on. And do it now. If you wait, delicate stains can become hard to get out.

Which brings us to category three: the industrial-strength stuff. These are the heavy stains that have been ground-in over time. Things like anger, shame, resentment, and self-loathing.

The only thing we can do with this nasty pile of laundry is to get ourselves an industrial-strength spot remover—a spiritual OxiClean—something or someone that will go deep into those buried places and release the stains.

Again, the Psalmists have the answer. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

When we allow God to work—when we accept God’s forgiveness, something profound happens. The stains start to break up, we begin to forgive ourselves, and we walk back into the world clean and fresh, ready for the work ahead.

The next time you are doing laundry, ask yourself three questions:
1)    What in my life does not need washing?
2)    What in my life just needs a delicate cleaning?
3)    What in my life needs an industrial-strength stain remover?

Do a little spiritual laundry. In the end, it will all come out in the wash.

*Sunday morning sermon at Madison Avenue Baptist Church, New York City

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From her mouth to God’s ear? – Bill Leonard* – Baptistnewsglobal.com

From her mouth to God’s ear? Women’s voices, homiletical testosterone and radical redemption

 

First, the Bible: “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression” (1 Timothy 2:12-15, KJV).

“There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Romans 8:1, KJV).

Then the question: Considering recent Baptist-related pontifications regarding “women in the pulpit,” one might ask: “Why should Christian women keep silent when in church?”

Answer: “Because if they speak, God might think they are preaching!”

“My hermeneutical approaches are surely those of an unabashed egalitarian where women and pulpit are concerned.”

That revised standard question arises from certain dictums recently made public by the Reverend Dr. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, in response to an inquiry regarding women preachers during his “Ask Anything” podcast. In extended remarks on the subject, Mohler distinguishes between “egalitarian” approaches by which men and women share in the call to preach, and “complementarian” approaches that set divinely ordained “boundaries” regarding the role of men and women in home and church. He cites the Southern Baptist Convention’s confession of faith and the evangelical-based Danvers Statement (1988) as advocating, indeed requiring, complementarian biblical interpretations.

The manifesto notes that:

  1. Both Old and New Testaments also affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community (Gen. 2:18; Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Tim. 2:11-15).
  2. Redemption in Christ aims at removing the distortions introduced by the curse.
    • In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership (Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; Tit 2:3-5; 1 Pet 3:1-7).
    • In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:2-16; 1 Tim 2:11-15).

Mohler concludes: “If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they are also the denominations where people do the leaving. I think there’s just something about the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.” In his view, 1 Timothy, chapter 2, means that since Mother Eve “was in the transgression” in the Garden, “biblical authority” for the church’s preaching office must be measured by homiletical testosterone, males only.

Mohler is therefore an unabashed complementarian who has every right to apply that specific biblical interpretation (hermeneutic) as he chooses. (Ironically, his assertion about declines in women-ordaining denominations came the week Southern Baptists acknowledged their own enduring statistical deteriorations in membership and baptisms, reflecting the loss of over a million members in the last decade.)

“God hears any voice that preaches Jesus.”

My hermeneutical approaches are surely those of an unabashed egalitarian where women and pulpit are concerned, views Mohler might consider “hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of Biblical texts,” as the Danvers Statement calls them. Truth is, a variety of “hermeneutical oddities” have enlightened and divided the church from the beginning, dueling texts that demand decision of all of us.

My own homiletical egalitarianism rests with texts like Romans 8:1: “There is therefore no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus….” In those words, all curses die, even the one 1 Timothy lays on Mother Eve and her OB-GYN descendants. For if women are too cursed to be called, they may be too cursed to be redeemed. Paul applied that radical declaration to the first-century church, often in the face of similar arguments about keeping Gentiles from entering the church without their becoming part of “the circumcision,” a bio-theological assertion apparently expanded with Christ’s resurrection! (See Colossians 2:11.)

The last thing I want to do is reengage in theological disputes with Al Mohler, who, if memory serves, was a student in at least one of my church history courses at Southern Seminary during my professorial tenure there, 1975 – 1992. He and I have been there, done that. Instead, I’ll defer to Jarena Lee, (1783 – ca. 1864), one of the first recorded African American female preachers in United States history.

In her autobiography, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee, A Coloured Lady, Giving an Account of her Call to Preach the Gospel (1836), Lee asked:

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach? Seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as the man.

She continued:

Did not Mary [of Magdala] first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity – hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? For she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.

“It’s not about testosterone; it’s about grace.”

The spiritual descendants of Jarena Lee continue that homiletical tradition. On May 9, 2019, “Woman’s Day” at our Winston-Salem congregation, I heard Reverend Sherine Thomas-Spight preach on Luke 8:26-39, the story of the Gadarene demoniac whom Jesus healed. Citing the man’s demon-inspired query, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” Thomas-Spight declared:

You see, when Jesus shows up it makes some folks uncomfortable. You know, sisters, there are some folks who just don’t like you because you carry the presence of Jesus with you. It doesn’t matter what you do, what you wear, what you say, they will always take issue with you because you carry the power of Jesus with you and it makes people uncomfortable because the darkness doesn’t like the light. But I challenge you today to keep coming around anyway.

Sister Jarena preaches still!

Across the years, women in my family, in my classes and in the church have taught me this: Christ’s gospel isn’t measured by biology or hierarchy, but by radical redemption. Joel 2:28 said what Simon Peter echoed (Acts 2:17): “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons, and your daughters shall prophecy.”

God hears any voice that preaches Jesus. It’s not about testosterone; it’s about grace.

*Dr. Bill Leonard was one of the speakers at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

 

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