Posts Tagged Jesus

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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Toward Non-gender Language for God – Dr. Molly Marshall

September 24, 2018 – The Christian Citizen

Most of us have now made the shift toward inclusive language for humanity, and we are learning about how pronouns matter in personal identity. We have realized that exclusive language erases half of humanity. Using only man or mankind ignores the presence of women in biblical narratives—and in life. It makes men normative humanity and sustains androcentric privilege. Just when we think the linguistic work is done, I pick up another book (often a theological text) that addresses or describes only men.

We do violence to women or persons who are non-binary (or other sexual minorities) when we subsume them into the conventions of exclusive language. We know the power of naming, and Scripture reminds us of all the ways identity is carried in a name. It is remarkable that as many women are named as there are—yet there are so many more whose names we will never know.

The contexts in which Scripture was shaped—the Ancient Near Eastern world and the Greco-Roman world of the early centuries of the Common Era—were patriarchal to the core. The social structure was hierarchical, and men held most of the rights for inheritance, divorce and religious standing. The language of the Bible reflects this structure, and it is not surprising that masculine imagery predominates. Many persons today read these ancient texts as prescriptive for the roles of women and men today, and they construct a complementarian vision of male and female relationships—to the detriment of both.

What progress are we making in our language for God? Using inclusive language for God has powerful impact on how we view God, how we order human relations and how we perform our roles as disciples of Jesus. Many translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version, have moved the practice of inclusive language forward by including women and sisters in the texts but have left He as the primary pronoun for speaking of God. The challenge is that grammatical gender elides biological gender in the minds of many. Far too many believe that God is literally male and that “Father language” rightly denotes God as ultimate progenitor.

In addition, the language Jesus used for God is warrant for many to speak of God only as Father.  Jesus’ language is much more about filial intimacy than ascribing literal gender. It is easy to see the growth of a tradition from Mark to John. In Mark, Jesus names God Abba 11 times; by the time John is written, this naming for God occurs 120 times. In the midst of great strides to include women begun by Jesus, the writers and editors of the Gospels wanted to ensure that a masculine vision of God safeguarded men’s prerogative and that women would remain secondary. We can see this effect by comparing the treatment of Peter and Mary Magdalene. Recent scholarship suggests that there was a concerted effort to subordinate her leadership to her male counterpart.

 

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender.

Many have dismissed inclusive language as “politically correct.” However, it runs much deeper. It is an attempt to speak justly about humans, and it strives to offer a vision of God beyond gender. Of course, our language for God is always a human projection, and we live in a world where biological identity is a key marker. Scripture uses masculine and feminine metaphors for God, and this enriches our image of God. It does matter that we keep some personal language for God, and Scripture provides more pathways for this idea than we have pursued.

One of the reasons I have given attention to the Spirit of God in recent years is that it allows one to bypass gendered language for God. Scripture and tradition use feminine imagery for the Spirit, yet using that imagery exclusively opens the door to exclusive use of masculine language for the other persons of the trinity. Spirit language, however, allows us to imagine that God is beyond our anthropocentric projections, or ascribing human characteristics to God. If anything, God is supra-personal and grounds our understanding of what it means to be personal and communal. The God who dwells eternally in the richness of trinitarian community invites us to new ways of imagining God with us, moving us beyond our exclusively masculine vision.

Dr. Molly T. Marshall is president of Central Baptist Seminary, Shawnee, Kan.

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We can find common ground, but only if we try – Rev. Susan Sparks

Recently, I was in the Atlanta airport waiting on a flight and I noticed two groups of people standing off to the side of the boarding gate. The first was a Muslim woman in full burka with three children between the ages of 3 and 5. The kids, also in traditional clothing, were nestled on the floor watching a video. Next to them was a white woman with a little boy, also about 5. She occasionally eyed the woman in the burka with suspicion.

After a few minutes, when his mother wasn’t watching, the little boy slowly sneaked over behind the other kids and began watching their video. Something funny happened in the piece and he and the other kids started giggling. Without hesitation, he sat down, curled up beside the little girl and kept watching. Without even looking up, the little girl turned the iPhone a bit so he could see it. The moms looked down, looked up at each other, then smiled and shrugged.

Those kids didn’t see the differences — clothes, race, nationality, religion; they saw common ground. And that, my friends, is what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen.

Ah, if there was only a video the entire world could gather around, watch and laugh about together. Short of that, let me suggest three other ways we can find common ground, practical ways based on our recent tragic headlines.

Education

This week (and weeks past), we’ve watched as our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico struggle to meet basic needs after the devastating hurricane strikes. We’ve also watched as aid to Puerto Rico has lagged. And more importantly, we’ve seen public outrage over this lack of support lag. Why is this happening? Overt prejudice is certainly one reason. But another is ignorance.

While most everyone knows that our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico are struggling after Hurricane Maria, what most everyone doesn’t seem to know is that these brother and sisters … are American citizens! A recent poll found that only 54 percent of Americans knew that people born in Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, are U.S. citizens.

Hel-lo.

Besides being really embarrassing, why does it matter? Two reasons: No. 1, It means one half of Americans think that what happened there is a foreign disaster and not a domestic one, which leads us to problem No. 2: Studies show that people attach an overwhelming priority to problems at home — and that includes prioritizing aid distribution.

There is absolutely no excuse for such ignorance, especially given the access to information these days through the Internet, the media, Amazon.com or the free library system.

Jesus commanded that we love our neighbor as ourselves, and sometimes that may seem a hard road. Our neighbor may seem separated from us by a mountain of differences. They may seem like a foreign nation. However, if we educate ourselves about each other (which might include learning about the states and territories of our own country, or learning about an unfamiliar religion, or someone’s sexual orientation, or a different political party), we will eventually find common ground.

Public conversation

This week, we witnessed a gunman perched on a high floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel take a cache of automatic weapons and systematically kill 59 people and wound more than 525.

Many are once again crying out for public debate on gun control. But rather than engage in debate, gun lobbyists are dismissing the effort at conversation, arguing that it is simply politicizing the tragedy.

Trevor Noah, the comedian and host of The Daily Show, had some thoughts on this. He said: “I wish I had used this logic as a kid when I’d done something wrong, when my mom wanted to ground me. I should have just said, ‘Is this the time, Mom, when we politicize what’s happening right now? This is not the time to talk about my lack of discipline. This is the time for us to unite as a family to focus on the fact that I’m stuck in the kitchen window trying to sneak back in.’”

I can’t help but think about Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 : “… with the judgment you make you will be judged. … Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” I’m going to go out on a limb and say, if you applied Jesus’ parable to the gun debate, you might get something like this:

 “I can’t believe the speck in the eye of these gun control advocates. They are politicizing this tragedy by using it to force a debate. OK, yeah11,000 people in the U.S. are killed annually by firearms; and yeah, the U.S. leads every developed country in gun violence; and yeah, America has 4.5 percent of the world’s population, but 50 percent of the civilian-owned guns, and yeah, there are 50,000 more gun shops in this country than McDonald’s; and yeah, gun stocks do tend to rally after shootings. But pushing public debate on gun control during this tragedy is just reprehensible.”

Like in any human dynamic, without conversation, without public debate, we shut ourselves off from the possibility of information, insight and empathy. We shut out the possibility of reconciliation. We shut down the possibility of ever finding common ground.

Overcoming blame

So many of our tragic headlines, including those around racial violence, can be traced not only hate and judgment, but also blame. Case in point: Claireborne P. Ellis, a Klan leader turned civil rights activist. Our church’s Bible study class recently read about his life story as documented through his obit and an NPR interview.

Ellis grew up in poverty in Durham, N.C., in the 1920s and ’30s. The son of a mill worker who was himself a Klan leader, he married at 17, fathered three children young, including a special needs child. Despite working two jobs, he could rarely pay his bills.

He said: “They say abide by the law, go to church, do right and live for the Lord and everything will work out. Well, it didn’t work out. It kept gettin’ worse and worse. I began to get bitter. So I joined the Klan. … It made me feel like somebody.”

Ellis eventually became the leader of the local Klan and battled for years over race issues, including battles with a local desegregation activist, a black woman named Ann Atwater.

For years they fought vicious fights. But then, over time, something happened. Ellis said, “During those days it became clear to me that she [Ann Atwater] had some of the identical problems that I had, and that I’d suffered like she had and what … had I spent all my life fighting people like Ann for?”

It took years, but in the end, Ellis resigned the Klan; he began fighting for desegregation. When he died back in 2005, Ann Atwater spoke at his funeral and said, “God had a plan for both of us.”

I read that obit and immediately thought of Colossians 3:14: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the glue that has the potential to unify the world. And if we can get past our blame, then that love will slowly seep in and bond us back together.

Brothers and sisters, these are glimpses of what could happen in our world. Could happen. But we have to be the ones to make it happen. We have to be the ones to educate ourselves, to engage in public conversation, to transcend blame, and to laugh together. It’s only then, that we will begin to truly heal. It is only then, that we will begin to see common ground.

 

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Putting God to the test – The Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall* – Baptistsnewsglobal.com

The study of the Hebrew language did not come easily to me. Perhaps it was because I waited until my final year of seminary to take it; perhaps it was because it met at 3 p.m.; perhaps it was because I sat near a window; perhaps it was because our professor was so bored teaching at this elementary level — I am sure I can come up with some other excuses. I did pass, even making an A, but only because I memorized the Book of Jonah, a particular interest of our instructor.

As I have been teaching my way through Exodus with my Sunday school class, I certainly wish I had loved the Hebrew language more. I am sure that particular nuances elude me, yet translations do capture the richness of the narratives. Specifically, I want to know more about the issue of “testing.”

Exodus itself is a patchwork of stories, which were gathered and edited over many years. These stories are complex reflections on how God’s purpose will be accomplished with flawed human actors, and how human choices will impact the character of the divine. Wandering, while being led? It is very hard to map how the wilderness journey transpired, and clearly the people made the trek more difficult through obstinacy and lack of faith.

The wilderness was a dangerous place, and the way God through Moses led was open to suspicion. A frequent refrain of the congregation of Israel was, “Have you brought us out here to kill us?” Moses usually deflected and suggested that their complaint was against God, not him (Exodus 17:2). Because he claimed to be sent by God to shepherd this people, he had to take the heat. He was a convenient target — like our pastors.

God tested the people, and the people tested God. Neither seemed pleased about this abrasion in their relationship, yet it was an unavoidable reality as a covenant was being forged in a context of peril. Could God trust the people to follow the appointed leadership of Moses? Could the people trust that they were accompanied by God’s own presence? Their insistent question was, “Is the Lord among us or not?” We can only imagine the ways in which that same query is being voiced in the daily heart-rending devastations.

They found themselves at Rephidim without water, and once again God provided through an unexpected means. God instructed Moses to take his staff, the one he had used to turn the Nile into blood, was now to provide life-giving water. God’s own presence was in front of him at Horeb, and through Moses’ action of striking the rock, abundant water flowed. The place where this occurs portrays testing and quarreling, Massah and Meribah, and becomes a cautionary note about how not to behave toward God. Israel’s remarkable lack of faith was on display in full force.

It seemed that Moses believed that God had the right to test the people, but they should have refrained from testing God. After all, God has prerogatives that do not belong to human beings. Brueggemann says that this text warns against a utilitarian view of God, in which the divine “is judged by the desired outcomes for the asking community.” In other words, human measures should not presume to assess the adequacy of God. Dictating how God must respond reduces the sovereign one to our level, a risky proposition, indeed. While immanent among us, God is also working in ways that transcend our comprehension.

Jesus’ own experience in the wilderness raises this theological question once again. When the devil tempted him to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove his identity in a spectacular way, Jesus quoted, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). The rest of the verse is “as you did at Massah.”

This faith venture is not easy, and we are beckoned to trust what we cannot see. Walking by faith and not sight produces a bit of anxiety, even for the mature in Christ. We echo the treasured words of Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude:

“My Lord, God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”

Thankfully, the one who was seen and touched by earliest believers, the very sacrament of God’s presence with humanity, walks just ahead of us, marking out the pathway. It is this reality that leads Merton to conclude his prayer with these words:

“Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

*Dr. Marshall spoke at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston. I place great store in her theological thinking and her Christian leadership.

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