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Category Archives: Bible

Reading James Through an American Lens

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A Reading of James 2: 14-17 with a 21st Century,

United States Gun Violence Hermeneutic:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t act on it? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is a victim in a mass shooting, or has had a child shot to death at school, and one of you says to them, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” and you do nothing to oppose the senseless madness of such horrific violence, allowing more madmen to easily acquire weapons of mass destruction, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it doesn’t lead to action, is dead.

The Good Undocumented Mexican

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Once there was a man  driving from Waco, Texas, down to Laredo on business.  When he stopped at a rest area south of San Antonio, a group of carjackers stole his car and beat him to a bloody pulp.  He had barely enough energy to stagger out to the side of the highway, where he collapsed onto the edge of the road.

A car, a really luxurious limousine,  soon approached.  Inside the chauffered vehicle sat the Archbishop of South Texas together with the Mayor of San Antonio, discussing their joint appearance at a La Raza Unida recognition dinner.  They were so busy going over their speech notes, they failed to notice the man lying on the side of the road as they passed by.

Later, a shiny white Cadillac approached.  A prominent tv preacher and his wife were on their way to a huge event at an auditorium where they hoped to save a bunch of souls, while teaching their audience that once they let God into their lives, God would begin to handle all their problems.  They too drove past the man lying on the side of the road.

After a while, another car appeared headed in the opposite direction.  It wasn’t nearly as nice as the others; it was an economy car, obviously in need of a little work.  The driver, a Mexican who had managed to cross the border without documentation, was on his way to find some day labor in San Antonio.  He looked across the highway, saw the body lying on the side of the road and stopped to render aid.  He crossed the highway on foot, being mindful of the traffic. He quickly saw the man had lost some blood and that he’d become dehydrated in the South Texas heat.  The Mexican went back across the highway to his car, from which he took took a jug of water and a clean shirt.  He came back and began to wash the man’s face, giving him a much needed drink of water in the process.  The undocumented Mexican then picked up the guy, crossed the highway, put him gently in the back seat of his car, and in a puff of blue smoke, drove on to San Antonio.  On the outskirts of the city, he spied a Doc-in-the-Box emergency care clinic and pulled his car into the parking lot.  Carrying the wounded Waco businessman in his arms, he walked inside, where a surprised receptionist shouted for the nurse, who immediately directed him to place the wounded man on the padded table in an empty examining room.  When the receptionist brought in the requisite clipboard of forms to be filled out, the undocumented Mexican reached for his wallet and took out ten twenty-dollar bills.  Thrusting them at the nurse, he pointed to the wounded Waco businessman lying unconscious on the examining table.  In broken English he made it clear that if they needed more money, he’d be back this way in about a week and could give them more.  He looked once more at the businessman, made the sign of the cross, turned and left.

Jesus would ask us the question he asked the lawyer of his time:  which of these people was the good citizen and neighbor to the Waco businessman so cruelly victimized by the violent carjackers?

Of course, we would know right off the bat which one, wouldn’t we?  But how would it make us feel to hear the closing advice given to the lawyer?

Go and behave like the Undocumented Mexican.

The Power of the Book

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I accept the criticism that I’m sometimes too locked in on just one book, the Bible.  There are, as Clarence Darrow says in Inherit the Wind, “many other good books.”   True enough.  Shakespeare at his best wrote in ways that suggest some sort of extraordinary inspiration and insight.  Poets like Blake, Eliot and Frost get me to step outside myself and my framed reality while at the same time drawing me into deeper places and frameworks that I would not experience otherwise.

It’s true that the Good Book has been used for No Good more than a few times–which BTW, is one of the reasons I’m committed to studying it, to counteract some of the mischief made with it;  and to hopefully make sure I don’t fall into that same mischief-making trap myself.   It’s a patchwork quilt of prose and poetry, of wisdom and anachronism, of mystery and straightforward message.  It has inspired and continues to inspire literature and art, and its language continues to be drawn upon by the world’s great orators.   Remember Lincoln’s famous “A House Divided” speech?  He lifted the crucial phrase straight out of the New Testament.

Plus, I’d like to see a Pelican Shakespeare anthology do something like this:

It’s my favorite part of that strange film.  Ain’t nobody gonna move that book.  No, sir.  Nobody.

Speaking of that Good Book, I’d best get back to it since I’ll be doing some sermonation with it mañana.

If the Apostle Peter had been a Biblical Fundamentalist

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Chapter 10, verses 9 and following, in the chronicle of the Acts of the Apostles might have unfolded this way:

Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. Then he heard a voice saying, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.’ The voice said to him again, a second time, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’

But Peter responded, “It is written in Leviticus, chapter 11 and Deuteronomy, chapter 14, that eating these creatures is an abomination.  I will not eat.”

The voice said again, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”  But Peter refused, saying, “I am a man of God, kept by the Word of God.  It is written in Deuteronomy 27:26, ‘Cursed be anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by observing them.’  I will not eat.”

The voice said again, “Peter, again, I’m telling you that these creatures are not profane.  Get up, Peter, kill and eat.”  Again Peter refused.  “The scriptures call this a great abomination.  I will not.”

“Peter,” said the voice, “God is doing a new thing and you are part of it.  You’ve been given this vision to prepare you for a visit by emissaries from a man I want you to go visit.  His name is Cornelius.”  Peter stroked his beard.  “That does not sound like the name of a circumcised man of God,” he replied.  “What is his trade?”

The voice, inflected with a barely perceptible trace of irritation, replied, “He is a centurion, of the Roman cohort, but a God-fearing…..”  Peter cut in with a shout: “Occupier!  Foreign devil!  Tool of Satan!  Idolater!  Blasphemer!  Never will I profane myself with the company of such as that one!  I am a man of God!”

“Peter,” said the voice, “I Am the Lord, your God, the God of your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  I Am the God of Jesus, your messiah, whom you saw crucified and resurrected.  I Am the God whose Spirit filled you at Pentecost.  Now, prepare yourself for the journey to Cornelius’ house.  He and his household are ready to be received into the great household I am making in Christ.”

“Lord—if you really are the Lord,” said Peter, “what must I do?  I do not have the skills to circumcise them as your scriptures plainly require.  Is this why you brought me to Simon the tanner’s house?  Should I bring him along to do it?”

“I want you to baptize them with water and with the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus instructed you to do” said the voice.  Peter’s eyes flashed with recognition.  “Yes, I remember the instruction.  Then afterwards do we circumcise them, me and Simon, whom you’ve sent me to in order that he might do this task more familiar to his trade?”

“No circumcision, Peter,” replied the voice.  “Just baptism.”

“But, Lord—if you really are the Lord—it’s written that those who are chosen to be your people must be circumcised and must abide by your law–your holy, inerrant, written word– taught and handed down to us since the time of Moses.  Jesus himself was circumcised and was brought up in this inerrant word of life.”  Peter was on a roll, now, as he reached back into his Bible for the coup de grâce.  “As it is written in Psalm 1: ‘Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night.’”

There was a sheer stillness as somewhere, there was a pondering of circumstances.

“Peter,” said the voice, “forget about it.  Go back to sleep.  When you awake, go, return to Jerusalem and live among your own people.  I’ll get Paul to handle this one.”

A Quick Shot of Historical Espresso–How We Got the New Testament

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Over at Progressive Involvement, John gives us a concise explication of the formation of New Testament canon.

Very, very nice.

Some Good Wisdom For Our Time

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Those of low estate are but a breath,

those of high estate are a delusion;

in the balances they go up;

they are together lighter than a breath.

Put no confidence in extortion,

and set no vain hopes on robbery;

if riches increase, do not set your heart on them.

Psalm 62:9-10

Abuses of Immigrants in U.S. Detention Centers Are Biblical, Moral Violations

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“You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” –Deuteronomy 10:19

In the Biblical law, admonitions regarding a stranger, or sojourner apply to someone who has left his or her own people and taken up residence in Israel.

Read this report from IPS World News and ponder the degree to which the U.S. is living up to a moral code of conduct that finds strong roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  And remember, the mechanisms of immigrant detention described here were ones set up by the so-called faith-based Administration whose leadership ranks were supposedly rooted in Christian morality.

NEW YORK, Mar 18 (IPS) – Clinical staff at U.S. immigration detention centres systematically abuse detainees in their charge, according to two reports by Human Rights Watch and the Florida Immigration Advocacy Centre (FIAC) that describe the medical care system in these facilities as “dangerously inadequate”.

The reports, released Tuesday, detail the callous treatment of detainees, especially women, who are in need of medical attention.

“Death rates in detention appear to be worsening,” said FIAC executive director Cheryl Little. “Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) needlessly detains people with severe illnesses and those who pose no harm to U.S. communities.”

The 78-page FIAC report exposes the exceedingly poor healthcare available to people in custody at immigration detention centres as well as the lack of official accountability.

It identifies wide-ranging problems with the medical care provided to detainees, including some as severe as improper care of physically and mentally disabled patients, “cruel and abusive behaviour” by clinic staff, overcrowded and unsanitary facilities and even isolation or transfer of patients as punishment for medical complaintsThe accompanying HRW report, also 78 pages, focuses on the treatment of women in immigration detention.

“Women in detention described violations such as shackling pregnant detainees or failing to follow up on signs of breast and cervical cancer, as well as basic affronts to their dignity,” said Meghan Rhoad, a researcher in the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.

The HRW report found that problems in medical services in detention centres are acutely felt by female detainees, and described a long list of grievances including “unwarranted denial of services”, long delays in potentially life-saving services, and unavailability of basic female hygiene supplies.

Both reports were researched through extensive interviews with detainees and staff at detention facilities as well as immigration officials and attorneys, and include many victims’ personal accounts of abuse.

For example, one woman who was forced to take the wrong medication in a California detention facility told researchers: “Immediately, my body started shaking. I felt so cold that I thought I was freezing to death, but at the same time I was sweating… Within minutes, I had a seizure and my body began to shake so violently that I fell off the bed onto the floor.”

But these reports might not even show the worst of it. “Because we went through legal providers, all of the women we spoke to had access to counsel,” Rhoad told IPS. “Eighty percent of detainees have no lawyer, so it is possible they also have even less access to care.”

The HRW report interviewed 48 women in nine detention facilities in Florida, Texas and California because these states have a particularly high concentration of female detainees, but ICE has many immigration detention centres in every state.

“Because immigration detention is the fastest-growing form of incarceration in the United States, these abuses are especially dangerous. They remain largely hidden from public scrutiny or effective oversight,” said Rhoad.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement department was founded in 2003 and is a branch of Homeland Security. The ICE website describes its mission as “protecting national security and upholding public safety by targeting criminal networks and terrorist organizations”.

What you can do about it:

  • If you live in one of the border states, especially, Florida, Texas or California, contact your state representative and your governor.  Make them aware that you are aware of the serious neglect and abuse of immigrant detainees in your own backyard and how that violates the ethical and moral standards expected of a just and moral society.

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany: Mark’s Action Flick Continues; Jesus Throws Down and Throws Out

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Mark 1:29-39

29As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

32That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

Jesus continues the radical reclaiming of God’s possessions as he liberates Peter’s MIL from a fever, then people from their illnesses and diseases.  He also continues to throw demons out of the people they’re possessing.  My Inner Teenager sees a lot of kicking ass and taking names.   This isn’t a gospel, it’s an action flick.

OK, it’s a gospel.  But an active gospel that describes Jesus as one who confronts some truly powerful forces and renders them harmless.   And here is where the gospel breaks with the action flick genre:  Jesus uses not a single firearm.  Not one rocket launcher.  Instead he brings the full force of God’s Spirit and God’s word against all these forces that have subdued people and their communities.  These are the tools that bring overwhelming force into the conflicts that Mark describes.

Mark’s gospel narrative begins with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptizer in the Jordan river.  As he comes out of the water, he sees the heavens literally torn apart and the Spirit descending upon him.  Then that nice little dove of a Spirit literally throws him out–the Greek word is ekballei–into the wilderness.  Ekballow is the same word used when Jesus casts out–throws out–demons.   All this throwing out business makes for a lot of dramatic action, and we’re still about halfway through the first chapter!

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. In our time and place it’s easy to wonder why in the world Peter and family wouldn’t give the newly-healed woman a break and order out.   But in that time and place, the sense of identity and honor found within the family by elder women was to serve meals, especially in a culture that attached honor to hospitality.  Jesus has restored her to her rightful place of honor and identity.  It may seem like a little thing, but notice that when Jesus touched her and lifted her up, the fever left her.   Another powerful, controlling force had been evicted.  Another person had been restored, or redeemed from the force that held her captive.

That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

There’s no rest for the weary in this gospel.  Jesus, like a good action hero, immediately finds himself in another conflict situation.  This time, the business is brought to him.  The whole city turns up at the front door with all manner of sick and demon-possessed people.  As in the earlier account of Jesus’ conflict with the unclean spirit in the synagogue, the demons try to speak Jesus’ name, which in the Hebrew tradition is a way to assert power over an opponent.  It’s why the God who speaks to Moses from the burning bush has no name but “I am who I am.”  There are some truly fanciful narratives crafted by 1st century Jewish gnostics who opposed the Jesus Movement emerging within Judaism.  They describe Jesus as someone powerful and crafty enough to gain the knowledge of God’s hidden name, and having stolen that name and hidden it in his thigh (an ancient ID chip, perhaps?) he was able to steal God’s power and do amazing things.  In these tales it’s Judas who is the hero, who tricks Jesus into a situation where the divine name is recovered and he is rendered powerless.  Then he is appropriately crucified with two other thieves.   The climactic scene in one story involves Judas and Jesus flying around the room locked in combat as if they were in one of those modern, surrealistic kung-fu movies.  Anyway, I digress………….

The Jesus we meet in Mark’s gospel is a bit of a thief in the way he has taken people away from the forces that had previously exerted ownership over them.  Fevers, illnesses, diseases, and yes, demons.

How do we approach the notion of demonic possession in our time and place, where such things seem like fanciful notions that ought to be relegated to the realm of superstition?  In today’s text study we heard from a pastor who had spent time in a third-world place where he witnessed exorcism rites.  In each case, he said, the exorcist would continually call for the name of the demon that appeared to be convulsing and contorting the possessed.  At some point, the name would finally be drawn out, and the exorcist would then call the demon by name and say, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I command you to leave.”  Almost immediately the person would stop writhing and convulsing and become limp in a peaceful sort of way.  As he watched, he said it seemed the person had indeed been relieved of some sort of possession and had returned to normal.

Our discussion then turned to examples of drug and alcohol addicted people we have known, and how those addictions can take almost complete possession of a person,such that their personalities change to the point where they are capable of some truly evil behavior.  These are possessions that break up families, destroy relationships, bring shame and degradation upon the possessed and upon those close to them.  It’s interesting that perhaps the most powerful, transformative spirituality at work in the world today can be  found in Alcoholics Anonymous, a movement with Christian roots.  It’s also interesting how the earliest steps to transformation in AA involve naming.  “I’m Bob and I’m an alcoholic,” says someone at an AA meeting.  It’s seen as a necessary, primal step to acknowledge the condition, to name it, claim it, and then through submission to a Higher Power, to control it, to make it submit to a Higher Authority.

I’ve talked with drug addicts who have amazing stories of doing the most despicable things, even to family and friends so that they can feed their addiction.  I’ve had some of these conversations in a Christian halfway house, where people find the strength to conquer the addictive force within them by subscribing to a disciplined pattern of Christian living.   In a way, it’s a new form of monasticism emerging in our time amongst addicts, prostitutes, street people and convicts.   Once they’ve found freedom from their enslavements to drugs and alcohol, they feel compelled to reach out to others and offer them this power to conquer their addictions.  In a Bible study held in a sparely furnished living room, I witnessed these men reading and discussing the activities of Jesus in Mark and the implications for their own lives.  For them, these stories of demonic possession and Jesus’ powerful authority over the demons weren’t just fanciful fiction.  They were real, powerful stories that applied directly to their lives.   And they were more than happy to talk about these things, making them living proof that Mark’s Action Flick of a gospel story continues to play out in our time and in some similarly amazing ways.

For those of us who aren’t possessed by such demons, it is perhaps as one pastor at the study observed, that it’s about the power Jesus brings against all forms of evil behavior.  That might seem like a notion that still leaves us outside the story.  But if we’re honest, perhaps we find that we also have some naming and claiming to do in our lives.  In any case, the core message of Jesus’ activity in Mark is that God is determined to reclaim, redeem, and repossess everyone who has been taken over by forces they themselves can’t resist.  And to take on such business, God has provided the ultimate action hero in this Jesus who isn’t sent with a license to kill, but a license to redeem.  And the power to kick ass and take names.  Oops, there goes my Inner Teenager again.

If you have some time, sit down with a modern translation of the Bible–NRSV, NIV, CEV, TEV, The Message–any of these is good at telling the old, old story.  Open your Bible to this ancient action flick named The Gospel According to Mark.   It’s short enough to read in one sitting, and that is a good way to read it.  But hold on and get ready for one really wild ride.

2nd Sunday in Advent: Mark’s Shocking Gospel, Part 2

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Continuing the journey through the first 8 verses of the Gospel of Mark:

Mark follows up on his dramatic first verse, “The beginning of the good news* of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,”  by seeming to reach back into the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah.  He does this, but he also combines Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 with Isaiah 40:3 to get this bit of poetry:

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,*
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’….

By the way, some manuscripts merely say “as it is written in the prophets,” without mentioning Isaiah specifically.  But why would Mark do this?    Whassup with Mark here?  Some things to consider: Read the rest of this entry

2nd Sunday in Advent: Mark 1:1-8 and the Shocking Gospel, Part 1

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1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Read the rest of this entry