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A fresh take on Lent from Jewish New Testament professor Amy-Jill Levine

March 7, 2019 by Emily McFarlan Miller

(RNS) — Amy-Jill Levine has described herself as a “Yankee Jewish feminist” and said that although she attends an Orthodox synagogue in Nashville, she is “often quite unorthodox.”
For one, Levine teaches both Jewish studies and New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School.
And the professor has written a new Lenten study titled “Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” published by Abingdon Press, an imprint of the United Methodist Publishing House.
“If I’m not a believer in Jesus, and I think these are fabulous stories, how much more so should somebody who’s a Christian find extraordinary meaning in them?” Levine said.
And as a Jewish historian, she said, she “can point out meaning that perhaps Christians were not aware of.”
In her new book, Levine walks through several stories Christians typically read during Holy Week, or Passion Week, marking the final days before Jesus was crucified, according to New Testament accounts.
That week also marks the final days of Lent, the penitential season many Christians observe leading up to Easter, when they celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. For Catholics and many Protestants, Lent began this week.

Author Amy-Jill Levine
Levine spoke to Religion News Service about Lent and risk and reading the New Testament from Rome, where she recently spent a morning talking to American priests on retreat about “why I think Jesus is wonderful.” In the coming weeks, she plans to present Pope Francis with a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament she co-edited.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In your new study, you draw a comparison between Lent in Christianity and the Days of Awe in Judaism. Can you talk about that?
Lent reminds me of what are called the Days of Awe — the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the Jewish liturgical calendar. We think about what we’ve done in the past and what we should be doing in the future. We take time to repent. We take time to figure out what we’re supposed to be doing in the world and how we can do it better.
The month that’s the run-up to Rosh Hashanah is also a time of introspection. You make amends — because you can’t put yourself in a right relationship with God if you’re not in a right relationship with people in your life.
It’s kind of like a theological do-over. And I find that remarkably healthy.
Both in Lent on the Christian calendar and in parts of the Jewish calendar, the community does this together. So you’re not alone in the difficulties of assessing what you’ve done. You’re not alone in trying to figure out how to do life better.
How does delving into the history and literature of Holy Week make the texts more meaningful?
Anybody can read the Bible. You can just pick the text up and say, “What does this text mean to me?” And you make a profound response.
But I do think the more history we know, the more profound the reading experience becomes. In the same way, if you fall in love with somebody, you want to know that person’s background.
If somebody claims to appreciate the stories of the Bible, it seems to me they ought to try to know something about the context in which the Bible was written. If we talk about Jesus teaching in the Temple, which is part of Lenten readings, then it helps to know what the Temple was like. It helps to know that there are Roman soldiers who are in the area. It helps to know that there were pilgrims from all parts of the empire — many of them don’t speak the same language — rejoicing and celebrating this Feast of Freedom, and those are the folks who are listening to these teachings. If we think about Passion Week coming at the same time as Passover, it helps to know what Passover is and how Passover is celebrated. If we read Scripture and Jesus quotes a passage from the shared Scripture — what the church would call the Old Testament and the synagogue would call the Tanakh — it really helps to know what that Scripture is and what comes before and what comes after and how people read that text in the first century.
Is there a particular story in these texts that stands out to you?
I like them all, but I’m very much drawn to the story where, at the beginning of these events, Jesus is at dinner — he eats a lot — and a woman comes in and anoints his head with very expensive ointment, like Chanel. People complain, and they say, “Wait a minute, this is expensive perfume. You could have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor.”
And Jesus says, “You’ll always have the poor with you.” And then we stop because that’s a quote directly out of Deuteronomy, and you know the next line is, “And therefore extend your hand to the poor and the needy.” You always have the chance to do this, but, as Jesus goes on to say, “You will not always have me here, and what she has done is anoint me for my burial.”
And he goes on to say, “This story will be told in memory of her.”
The story is supposed to be told in memory of her, so how do we tell that story? And when we tell it, do we tell it about her? What was she thinking? And later on in the Gospel of Mark, when three women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, did it not occur to them that this woman had already done that — that she got it right, that she understood what was going on?
Why don’t we have, on the Christian liturgical calendar, a dinner celebrating her? I think that’s the new feast that needs to be invented: We have a special dinner at the beginning of Holy Week and we tell stories about all the women who made this mission possible. How cool would that be?
This study is all about risk. How do you see that theme in the stories of Holy Week?
Jesus knows he’s going to die. You don’t have to be supernaturally prophetic to know that if you go into Jerusalem and you’re a popular leader, that’s going to come to the attention of the powers that be and your life is going to be at stake. So let’s talk about the risk-taking in which he engages, and let’s see how Lent can help us take the risks that we need to take in order to live more complete lives.
We’re happy with the status quo. We know that certain things are wrong, but if we have to risk our reputation or our economic status or our political connections or even our own communities because we’re in favor of something that the community is not, when do we finally make that step and take that risk?
Jesus talks about taking up your cross, which is an extraordinary image. It doesn’t mean, “Oh, I have to take up my cross. I have to pick up the dry cleaning today.” It means, “I’m going to do something where I’m going to risk my reputation, my life, but this is exactly the right thing to do.”
I think Lent helps us with that. We can ask not only what should we have done, but what did we fail to do? When were we too afraid? When were we too self-interested to take the steps that need to be taken in order to do what Jews would call “tikkun olam” — to engage in the reparation of the world?
Some people see the New Testament, and in particular, some of the stories of Holy Week, as anti-Jewish. You also co-edited a Jewish Annotated New Testament. Do you see this in the text, or is that in how these stories have been interpreted?
I think one, as a scholar or as a reader, could pick up parts of the New Testament, like much of the Gospel of John, for example, and say, “This is an anti-Jewish text.” I think that’s a fair reading, but it is not the only reading.
Whenever we read, we interpret, and what’s anti-Jewish to one person is not anti-Jewish to another. I just find it more helpful to say it is certainly the case that over time that many of these texts have been interpreted in an anti-Jewish manner. Therefore, it is our responsibility as moral readers to make sure that we do not inculcate or reinforce anti-Jewish views to people who hear what we have to preach or read what we have to write.
Because reading is often a moral act, what choices do we make when we interpret a text in one way rather than in another way? Do we read benevolently or do we read malevolently? And that’s a choice. I don’t think if you read the New Testament, you are going to come out as an anti-Semite. It’s not a necessary reading, but it’s a possible one.
What do you hope people will take from your study?
Part of my goal is to get people to appreciate how each Gospel has a different story to tell. Rejoice in those distinctions. Rejoice in the separate stories. Because these stories are so wonderful that there’s no single way of telling them any more than there’s a single way of telling the creation story in the Book of Genesis. To be Israel means to wrestle with God.

“Entering the Passion of Jesus: A Beginner’s Guide to Holy Week,” by Amy-Jill Levine
Think about Judas Iscariot and what were his motives, because they vary from Gospel to Gospel. Think about how the apostles felt, because, at best, they’re confused. Look at all those minor characters like the woman who anoints Jesus or later the centurion at the cross — what did they think and how were they functioning? Listen to Jesus’ teaching: What does he say about paying taxes? What does he say about the greatest commandment and why?
Each story opens up to so many possibilities — profound, inspirational, often challenging. And I want people to take that challenge, which is in fact to take that risk, to let the stories challenge us and sometimes to indict us.

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Clergy, Laity Partnership is Essential for Church Health

Mitch Carnell – February 8, 2019 – ethicsdaily.com

I have a renewed interest in the concept of the priesthood of the believer as embodied by lay leadership in the local church.
This unexpected perspective emerged from a focus on Baptist beliefs and distinctives in the Sunday school class I attended for Baptist History and Heritage Month last October.
Unless those of us in Baptist churches – and other traditions where the laity are important – step up to the plate, the laity is in great danger of forfeiting its partnership with the professional clergy.
This is crystal clear in a resolution that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio in 1988, “Resolution on The Priesthood of The Believer,” which states that “elders, or pastors, are called of God to lead the local church.”
The laity have been equal partners with the clergy in Baptist congregations since our founding in 1608/9. In fact, Thomas Helwys, a layman, founded the first Baptist church on English soil in 1611.
With the arrival of the megachurch and the CEO-pastor model, the influence of the laity has been in steady decline. This has happened as two streams emerged.
The first is the gradual voluntary relinquishing of responsibility by the laity. I count myself in this category.
The second stream is the eager accepting of more responsibility by the professional clergy. This pattern has accelerated among Baptists in the southern U.S. since the passage of the 1988 resolution.
Over this same period, we have seen the rise of clergy abuses.
While there are exceptions, the general trend has been for the power of the professional clergy to continue to increase, while the size of laity-led boards and committees has declined in relation to congregational size.
This gives more and more control to smaller and smaller groups. In many cases, a small group of elders, along with the pastor, exercise control over the affairs of the congregation.
Committees have become less and less active until many of them have disappeared.
As members have become less involved in the affairs of the congregation, membership and attendance have also declined.
The clergy make vital decisions once made by church members. There are fewer opportunities to develop and nourish new leadership.
How will young adults – both women and men – in our congregations develop the skills necessary to develop into effective leaders if they aren’t given the chance? Where are the training opportunities?
I contrast this situation with the days when I was a young Christian. My church could not wait to move its young people into places of leadership development. Their encouragement and support undergirded everything I did.
My undergraduate years were filled with wonderful opportunities to develop my skills in both urban and rural churches as a volunteer.
Years later, when I arrived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as a graduate student and a stranger in my newly found church home, I was quickly tapped to fill a place of service.
When I arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, in my local church, I joined the most active group of young professionals I had ever encountered.
The church simply hummed with their involvement. In no time, my wife and I were put to work.
Our church has a long history of women in leadership positions. Due to hard times after the Civil War and the shift in the population, the trustees boarded up the church and were ready to assign it to history or turn it into a museum.
However, a small group of women pried the boards from the windows, climbed through and continued services.
From my youngest days, my life has been blessed by men and women of the clergy from a host of denominations. They are my friends and mentors.
I honor and respect them, listen to and socialize with them and often question them.
I would describe them as servant leaders because they recognize the essential role of the laity as partners in the pursuit of building God’s kingdom on earth.
As one of my former ministers said to a group of us while visiting me at college, “Everyone is either a missionary or a mission field.”
At the time, I thought that he was playing for laughs; however, over time I have come to appreciate the wisdom of his statement. There is a vital role for every Christian.
The role of the clergy is essential; however, we make a grave mistake when we enhance that role to the extent that the importance of the work of the laity is compromised.

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In a culture of shouting, people of faith must address listening deficit

JONATHAN DAVIS | JANUARY 28, 2019 -BaptistNewsGlobal

Some days I feel like I have very little right to speak. Even as a preacher. Maybe especially as a preacher. I have little right to speak to minorities who have known discrimination and bigotry their whole lives. I have little right to speak to those who are economically disadvantaged and suffering in tangible ways. I have little right to speak to those fleeing violence and persecution in their countries of origin.

I am a straight, white, upper-middle-class, American, Christian man. I need to do more listening. Listening to the brokenhearted. Listening to the poor. Listening to the single mother. Listening to the ostracized. Listening to those wondering where their next meal will come from. Listening to the teen labeled “at risk” by all the adults in his life. Listening to people who will never experience the world beyond their urban community or rural county. Listening to people with differing political opinions and biases than the ones I harbor.

In a polarized world, listening seems a rarity. Everyone is shouting. It’s hard enough to listen to the shouting when it’s my own children (whom I love). Listening to the cacophony of clamorous caterwauling between grownups I’ve never met? I find it vociferously deafening.

How can we listen in a culture of shouting, especially when listening to shouting is so spiritually and emotionally draining? The question is largely rhetorical, because I do not profess to know the answer in full.

“Sermonizing is not a solution to the listening deficit in our culture.”

More and more, I find that friendship and personal relationships are the only way to listen deeply. I try to listen deeply to God’s Spirit when preaching and speaking, but in the moment of preaching, the conversation is vexingly one way. Sermonizing, then, is not a solution to the listening deficit in our culture.

The fact is, different people have different perspectives and experience reality differently. Media coverage of a recent encounter in the nation’s capital between a Native American elder and the Catholic schoolboy attests to this. Nobody wants to hear the other when everyone is ready to shout first. When everybody shouts, nobody is truly heard.

When we fail to listen to the other, we make the mistake of reducing people made in God’s image to foregone conclusions, concise soundbites and imbedded biases intent on demonization. Instead of jumping on every viral video meant to induce outrage, should we not listen first (which may result in thinking before responding)?

I’m afraid we don’t have the patience for listening fully and respectfully. Doing so may require a few days or weeks or even longer. What if the news cycle – which often is more accurately an outrage cycle – passes us by in our listening? Wouldn’t that be a gift?

Of course, listening in the right ways gives our words more power when it is time to speak. Too often the things we say stem from confirmation bias and parroting someone else’s talking points than any deep reflection on our part.

“Listening in the right ways gives our words more power when it is time to speak.”

Understanding the need to listen deeply does not remove the responsibility or burden of speaking. In his famous speech at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos, without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world: my own government.”

Have any of us paused, or listened long enough, to consider that the Native American elder and the Catholic school boy were both in Washington that day to do (in their own way and according to their own understanding) what King called us all to do? Aside from their encounter with each other, each was there to speak against what they understand to be oppression and to lift up a “voice for the voiceless,” as Oscar Romero said.

In a previous column, I wrote about the challenge of preaching weekly and trying not to lose my voice in the current culture. I’m growing more convinced that it’s only out of listening – and hitting a personal pause button on all the feigned and manufactured social outrage – that I actually have a voice. Whenever I join the chorus of outrage my voice is no longer my own, but that of group-think, confirmation bias, partisan pundits and talking heads.

Failing to speak amid injustice and abuse of power is a sin, to be sure. When we fail to speak we lose our agency, voice and prophetic witness. All the same things happen when we fail to listen.

As a follower of Jesus living in a divided culture, how do you balance listening and speaking?

 

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A MORNING PRAYER: REMEMBERING THOSE WHO WORK FOR SO LITTLE

Rev. Susan Sparks: Madison Avenue Baptist Church NYC
January 20, 2019

Gracious God,

We give you thanks today for all our many blessings. So many of those blessings are provided to us by our brothers and sisters—your children—who work for so little.

We raise up all who do the jobs others don’t want: those who clean, who take care of our sanitation, who care for our poor, homeless, sick or elderly.

We give thanks for their work.

We remember those who do the jobs behind the scenes: those who wait on our tables, cook our food, deliver our papers, drive the trucks that bring food to our grocery stores, operate our transportation, patrol our streets, and protect us from fires and danger.

We give thanks for their work.

We acknowledge those who do important jobs for low pay, like home healthcare aides, teachers, farm workers, nurses, and social workers.

We give thanks for their work.

We specifically pray for all the federal workers who are furloughed or working without pay: our TSA and homeland security workers; our tax workers; our air traffic controllers; the National Park Service workers; the National Weather Service; our EPA inspectors who keep our chemical factories, power plants, oil refineries, and water treatment plants safe; workers in the criminal justice system, including the F.B.I., the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, and the Secret Service; and our Food and Drug Administration workers who inspect our food and protect us from contamination.

We give thanks for their work.

Lord, this morning we are mindful of those blessings provided to us by our brothers and sisters—your children—who work for so little. May we remember their sacrifice. And may you give us the strength to ensure that the blessings we receive from them are not only used for the betterment of our world but someday are equally returned to them. Amen.

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