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Be Thou My Vision

Be Thou My Vision (Luke 9:28-36)

Transfiguration Sunday, 2013

Heflin Baptist Church; Heflin, Alabama

 

The Scripture

About eight days later, after Jesus said these things, he went up the mountain to pray with Peter, John, and James. In the midst of his prayers, his face changed and his clothing flashed brightly as with lightning. Look! Two men spoke to him. It was Moses and Elijah; they were seen in glorious splendor. They spoke of Jesus’ departure, which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.

Now, Peter and the others with him had been weighed down with sleep, but they awoke abruptly to his glory and the two men with him. While these two were leaving him, Peter spoke up to Jesus: “Master, it’s good that we’re here! Let us make three shrines — one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” He did not understand what he said.

While he said these things, a mass of clouds overshadowed them and they were terrified as they entered into it. A voice came out of the fog saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.” After the voice, they found Jesus alone. They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.

Luke 9.28-36, author’s translation

An Introduction

When we come to passages like this one, especially when we preachers come to passages like this one, we speak too quickly. I have heard many well-intentioned preachers describe every nook and cranny of these few paragraphs. I have read scholars who quickly assign every word with special meaning and significance. There are historical references, literary archetypes, narrative functions; none of these is untrue. Does Moses symbolically speak for the Law and Elijah the Prophets?  Yes, I am sure they do. Does this event signify Jesus’ fulfillment of both? Well, yes, I suppose it does. Does this type of appearance foreshadow the Resurrection? Well, yes, but hold on a moment. Does the cloud represent the presence of God as it does in numerous Old Testament narratives?  Are the shrines indicative of a certain method of venerating holy sites? Is it significant that it was Peter, James, and John who went with him? Does this passage connect with the previous one in any way — “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27, NRSV)?

Stop.

Listen.

There is something about this passage, maybe a few things actually, that speak deeply about our faith and the nature of our human condition. There is something undeniably strange and inexpressible happening in this passage. Luke does his best to express it in words, but ultimately it must have been indescribable. After all, for quite a while, “they kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” (v. 36, author’s translation)

Sleeping In

It is tempting to look at this passage and talk about our so-called “mountain-top experiences” that more than rival our everyday experiences of God, but that is not what this passage is talking about. In our lives, we do not often experience moments like the Transfiguration. They are rare, very rare. I have experienced profound moments of mystery, infinitude, and communion with God in my life, but none of them quite compare to what Luke tells us happens on the Mount of Transfiguration. Do these things happen? Yes, I imagine they do. I know the stories of the church’s saints and sinners experiencing similar terrifying and awe-full moments. But the simple matter is, as I imagine you already know … the simple matter is, we do not have these experiences in our day-to-day lives. In all likelihood, you and I will never experience anything quite like the Transfiguration on this side of heaven.

So where does that leave us? Unlike Peter, James, and John, we are sitting at the base of the mountain, at the bottom of the hill. We sit looking heavenward with no Transfiguration to speak of. We do not have the confirmation that such a dramatic experience brings. Our God is not so plainly apparent to us. Our faith is a little bit harder, it seems, than it is for those on top of the mountain. Rather than matching the experience of these select disciples, my faith and yours seems more like another Gospel story. As Mark tells it, there is a father deeply grieved over the state of his child. His young boy suffers seizures, convulsions; he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth before collapsing. It has been like this since his childhood. He has tried to cast himself into fire and water, and all his father wants is his healing. He just wants it to stop, and now he has Jesus in front of him. Surely, he thinks, it gets better.

But Jesus lectures the crowd on their lack of faith and he seems to grow weary with the father when the boy’s parent pleads, but only conditionally. “If you are able,” he says, “have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22, NRSV) Jesus replies to him, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes,” and the father quickly replies in earnest faith, doubt, conviction, and despair, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (vv. 23-24) I believe; help my unbelief. “I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” (KJV) That seems more like our faith, doesn’t it? I believe; help my unbelief. Why? Faith is a tricky thing. It is not so easy to pin down. The man’s expression, paradoxical though it may seem, tells us a deep truth about faith, particularly faith down here at the foot of the mountain.

Faith is not just belief. Faith is not the supposition that a certain proposition is either true or false. Faith is the setting of your heart upon something above everything else. Faith is to care about one thing more than anything else, to not just believe, but believe and trust in that in which you have faith. And if that is the way faith is, I think we understand the father a bit more. I believe; help my unbelief. If faith is trust, if faith is setting our hearts upon God, faith is not absolutely confident. Faith cannot be 100% sure. Faith simply does not know, it cannot know, if it is correct in placing its trust in anything. Otherwise, it would not be faith. So, at the base of the mountain, we have faith, but we also doubt. We can never quite know God on this side of heaven. We do not know the mind of God, the purposes of God, the whole nature of God, the totality of God, but we have faith in God. But we do not know.

We do not know, because at the base of the mountain, we are distant from God. God is both here, present, and active and distant, estranged, and far-off. God is with us, but the fullness of God is at the top of the mountain. We can look, squint our eyes, and try and see God, but even our personal God who loves us more than life itself cannot be fully glimpsed down here in the valley. The nature of our relationship with each other includes such distance. When we trust each other, we assume a certain amount of risk. We do not know 100% that the other person is worthy of our trust. But in an act of love and faith, we trust what we do not fully know — their intentions, their future actions, and their love back for us. It is the same way with God. We cannot see all of God from the valley, we do not know God’s intentions and future actions, but we believe and trust, we set our hearts upon, God’s love for us.

That thought is unsettling. That doubt is unsettling. I believe; help my unbelief. That unbelief disturbs us, it keeps us up at night. Ancient Christians speak of these “dark nights of the soul,” where it seems as if the only thing is us and the stars, us and our bedroom ceiling, us and the clock ticking in the other room. We sit at the kitchen table while everyone else is asleep, wondering, hoping, praying, and sometimes the only thing we hear is the rhythmic tick, tock, tick, tock from across the hall. We are afraid to share these feelings because we think that we are the only ones who feel them. We think that they are bad, we think that they make us less than, and we think they make us bad Christians. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we all, right now, are weighed down with sleep, just like the disciples.

But it was not just the disciples — even the ones who saw this Transfiguration! — who experienced these dark nights. As Matthew tells it, so did Jesus. Earlier that night, Jesus broke bread, saying that it was his Body; he gave them a cup, saying that it was his Blood. He told Peter that he knew he would betray him. He knew that Judas had gone and turned him over to the authorities. As things began to come together, he again went up the mountain to pray. Again, he took Peter, James, and John with him. He tells them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38, NRSV) But again, his disciples are weighed down with sleep, and they cannot stay awake. So, Jesus is left alone, sitting at the kitchen table listening to the tick, tock, tick, tock of the clock in the other room. Jesus is left alone, staring at the bedroom ceiling, and the words escape his lips, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” (v. 39)

Jesus stands up and a dear friend betrays him. He watches as the world starts to crumble. They draw swords, they drag him before a council; Peter says that he never knew him — not once, but three times. He endures the corruption of the courts, the man who betrayed him takes his own life, and Jesus endures mockery on his way to execution. And on that cross, he looks up at the dark skies, only him and the stars distant and unseen, shouting, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (Matthew 27:46) My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If there is anyone who is our model for our relationship with God, it is God in Jesus himself. And Jesus shouted out, I believe, I believe, help my unbelief. Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani.

Waking Up

If that were the end of the story, we might be in a spot of trouble. But, thanks be to God, it is not the end of the story. For Jesus endures all of this doubt, all of this felt separation, all of this pain and distance, only to result in the Greatest Transfiguration. We would not have good news in this story if Jesus just died, but we have good news because Jesus got up. Jesus woke up from this dark night of the soul in the most magnificent way possible. It is the Transfiguration, Take 2.

Now, in those interminable days between the Cross and the Empty Tomb, there is no doubt in my mind that the disciples were again, as they were on the Mount of Transfiguration, weighed down with sleep. Not unlike us, their eyelids were heavy and their trials intense. But eventually, they awoke abruptly to his glory. And that is good news, friends. Right now, we are weighed down with sleep, but one day, too, we will awake abruptly to his glory. “For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part,” Paul tells us, “but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.” (1 Corinthians 13:9) He continues, “For now, we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am fully known.” (v. 12, KJV) The day will come when faith shall be made sight, because someday, John of Patmos tells us, the home of God will be among us, he will dwell with us, we will be his people, and God will be with us. God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And God says, “See, I am making all things new.” Someday.

This reality catches us between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive in our waiting, hoping, and persevering. We doubt and we struggle. But on the other hand, we have hope and we have assurance, but back again: the time has not yet come. What are we supposed to do, caught here in the middle? I think we start looking. We start looking for glimpses of heaven breaking into the world. We look for cracks in the barrier between heaven and earth, places where thin beams of light come shining through, bathing our darkness in small bits of heavenly light. Preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor calls this the spiritual “Practice of Paying Attention.” She explains it this way,

“I must have been sixteen, earning summer spending money by keeping a neighbor’s cats while she was away. The first time I let myself into the house, the fleas leapt on my legs like airborne piranha. Brushing them off as I opened cat food and cleaned litter pans, I finally fled through the back door with the bag of trash my employer had left for me to carry to the cans out back. I could hear the fleas inside flinging themselves against the plastic, so that it sounded as if a light rain were falling inside the bag.

“I could not wait to be shed of it, which was why I was in a hurry. On my way to the cans, I passed a small garden off to the left that was not visible from the house. Glancing at it, I got the whole dose of loveliness at once — the high arch of trees above, the mossy flagstones beneath, the cement birdbath, the cushiony bushes, the white wrought-iron chair — all lit by stacked planes of sunlight that turned the whole scene golden. It was like a door to another world. I had to go through it. I knew that if I did, then I would become golden too.

“But first, I had to ditch the bag. The fleas popped against the plastic as I hurried to the big aluminum garbage cans near the garage. Stuffing the bag into one of them, I turned back toward the garden, fervent to explore what I had only glimpsed in passing. When I got there, the light had changed. All that was left was a little overgrown sitting spot that no one had sat in for years. The smell of cat litter drifted from the direction of the garbage cans. The garden was no longer on fire.”

We doubt, but the world is not always dark and God is not always so silent. Sometimes we just have to stop and pay attention. Sometimes we just get to busy walking by the golden gardens in our lives that we miss little moments of transfiguration in our day. Life is not filled with moments like the Transfiguration, but that does not mean life is not replete with transfigurations. We are still at the base of the mountain, but a few times each day, bright rays of sunshine break the shade of the hill. Living with doubt requires the courage of faith, and sometimes the courage of faith is just to look at the world a different way. When we look around corners for little traces of heaven, we start to see things in a different way. It is not a cure for doubt, because there is no need for one, but it brings us closer to God and helps us bring these little bits of heaven to earth.

Keeping Silent

The oddest thing about the passage we read to me might not be the terrifying appearance of God, but the subsequent silence of God’s witnesses. A mass of clouds, perhaps the very presence of God, wraps up the disciples and speaks to them. And then, they are silent. It says, “They kept silent and told no one what they had seen.” This course of action is an affront to our evangelistic tendencies, but I think there is something to be learned from it. There is a lot to learn from silence. When we sit at the kitchen table listening to that tick, tock, tick, tock, reality confronts us with all sorts of things we never knew before, about the world, about others, about ourselves, about God. We do not often hear God speak from burning bushes, clouds, or whirlwinds — have you ever wondered why?

Perhaps God does not speak simply because we are not silent. Perhaps God does not speak because we talk too much. Maybe God is speaking, but we are too busy talking about God to listen to God. Perhaps we would hear God if we simply paid a little more attention. If we paid attention, maybe, we would see little transfigurations in our lives, little bits of heaven on earth, little rays of heavenly light illuminating our night. So, this week, stop and listen — listen to each other, to creation, all of it. See if your hear God, for, “if you seek, you shall find.” Someday.

To avoid the risk of irony, to speak too much about silence, to say too many things about God, let me conclude with prayer. Let our words be those of our old, cherished hymn, “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart; Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.” Amen.

All the Children’s Crumbs

All the Children’s Crumbs 

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Mark 7:24-27 (NRSV)

In many Christian traditions, it is customary for the preacher to say, “This is the word of the Lord” and for the congregation to say, “Thanks be to God.” When we come to a passage like this one, however, that seems hard to say. How are we to respond to such a so-called “hard saying” of Jesus? “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs … to the dogs.” This is the word of the Lord? Who is this Jesus? This Jesus is not the one I met in Sunday School. This Jesus is not the one in whom I professed faith when I walked down an aisle like this one. This Jesus is not the one in whose name I was baptized. This Jesus is not the Jesus I know.

Let me tell you the story of the Jesus who I know. He emerged onto the scene, baptized by his revolutionary cousin John (1:1-11). He was tempted and tried just as you and I (1:12-13). Out of his trials, he emerged a healer, prophet, and teacher (1:14-20). He walked out among the marginalized and the oppressed (1:21-39). Mark tells us he even went to the lepers, the ones everyone considered wholly unclean (1:40-45). He healed them. He even cured the paralytic everyone assumed deserved what he got (2:1-12). He healed him. He called tax collectors, political protestors, and everyday workers to be by his side (2:13-17; 3:13-19). He healed them. He overturned traditional rules and paradigms to the point that they called him Satan (2:18-28; 3:20-30). He healed them. He mystified us with parables and astounded us all the more by going to the Gentiles, casting out even their demons (4, 5:1-20). He healed them. Whether it’s a poor woman coming in the crowd or a religious hotshot coming to his face, he healed them (5:21-43). He traveled across the sea (he even walked on it!) and he fed the thousands (3:7-12; 6:30-52). He healed them. He told the religious leaders that they had it all wrong. “You do a great job,” he said, “of ignoring God to keep your own traditions.” (7:1-23) He healed them. A woman from the fringes, from Syrophoenicia  of all places, a Gentile, comes to him and … “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Read the rest of this entry

Injustice Legalized, Justice Criminalized (from the Samford Crimson)

I wrote this piece for the Samford Crimson last week. 

Last week, the immigration law known as HB56 went into effect. While some provisions had been blocked by the courts, critical portions remain. Judge Sharon Blackburn upheld those parts of the law that require (not allow, require) schools to check students’ immigration status. HB56 also requires (again, not allows, but requires) police to assess the citizenship of anyone they stop, arrest, or detain. The law provides police with the authority to arrest anyone whom they suspect might be an illegal immigrant. Some portions of the law have been temporarily block, namely those that make it a crime to provide transport or shelter for an illegal immigrant or for an illegal immigrant to seek or perform work.

Frankly, the whole situation has been utterly shameful. The law itself represents the worst of our political system. It remains purely political posturing, not an attempt to solve a problem. Republicans in Alabama promised immigration reform when they took the supermajority of the state legislature in 2010, and this law is what they provided. State Senator Scott Beason, one of the drafters of the legislation, promised that they would “empty the clip and do what has to be done.” This law is what that sort of disturbingly violent metaphor looks like in practice. However, there is no justifiable reason for such measures to be taken.

It hurts the economy. Dr. Keivan Deravi, an economics professor from Auburn’s Montgomery campus, remarked that the law “wasn’t supported by facts and wasn’t based on real economic theories and research.” Agricultural businesses and farmers proved him right when they began approaching lawmakers in the past few days. They explained that they have fields full of rotting crops because they no longer have labor to harvest them. In addition, any revenue gained from sales taxes on this population is gone as many illegal immigrants fled the state this weekend and this week. Furthermore — libertarian friends, listen up — the law requires businesses to invest in the E-verify system which requires thousands of dollars on their part annually. It would be useful if Alabama consulted economic professors and experts before writing up their own hare-brained legislation.

It hurts law enforcement. Training for this law requires hours of police officers’ time and excessive amounts of funding and resources. Most Alabama counties do not have these sorts of funds to spare. I think of Jefferson County’s continued financial woes as it plunges deeper into increasingly absurd amounts of debt. The law also opens the door for racial profiling within law enforcement. This same criticism was leveled at Arizona’s SB1070 immigration law, which many have called mild compared to Alabama’s. Consider too the prison system in Alabama. This law will put a heavy burden on already over-crowded jails, further straining for what passes as a prison system in Alabama.

It hurts our education systems. Hundreds of students have already disappeared from county public school systems across the state. In Montgomery County alone, the Associated Press reported that 200 students disappeared the morning the law went into effect. A sudden drop in Hispanic attendance rates across the state is alarming, to say the least. How do you think that will affect that community? The law effectively marginalizes a minority group based on race. Sound familiar, Alabama? While some superintendants claim that the process will just be used to gather data, the law effectively “uses fear to deter Alabama’s Hispanic population from education,” as one columnist from Arizona put it on Sunday.

If those are not enough reasons for you regardless of your political ideology or otherwise, consider this: it is morally reprehensible and dangerous. If those currently blocked portions of the law come into effect in the days to come, kindness and charity toward a minority group will be criminalized. Under what moral or ethical system is it considered unjust to provide such basic needs as transportation and shelter? I would encourage all Alabamians to consult the data and see the undeniably negative effects of the law and to further consult their consciences to see if that is really how they would like to treat their neighbors.

The God Who Wasn’t Fair

18 September 2011 // All Nations Church // Huntsville, AL

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.  When he went out at nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’  He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.  Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.  And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?  Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’  So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The Gospel according to Matthew; Chapter 20, verses 1-16

When we come to this passage, we think we already have an idea of what it is saying.  When we come to it, we are already on God’s side.  We already assume the landowner is God — and that means he has to be right, doesn’t it?  We have heard Jesus teach so many times through the Gospels that we automatically assume we understand what the parables have to say.  When we read, we automatically side with God.

But that’s not how the first hearers of this parable would have heard it.  They didn’t know what was coming in advance.  Matthew concludes the parable with “So the last will be first, and the first will be last,” but Jesus’ audience didn’t know that.  We think we understand.  We think that because we live on this side of history, on this side of the Cross, that we understand exactly what grace is.  We think we understand what grace means.

But we don’t.

Read the rest of this entry

Alabama Immigration Situation featured in the New York Times

In case you missed it, the New York Times ran an article yesterday on the situation in Alabama, specifically highlighting the Church’s reaction to the situation.

Among some of the more interesting bits were:

The politics of this are unusual, with those opposed to the law, mostly coming from the left, arguing that the statute falls short of biblical principles, and the law’s supporters, mostly from the right, arguing that secular laws and biblical law cannot always run on the same track.

An astute observation. The law has put people arguing from opposite sides than they would normally. What does that show? Either the arguments are not actually about Scripture at all and are instead about one’s unrelated political affiliation, or the Christian political world is a lot more nuanced than we thought.  The resolution regarding immigration reform issued by the SBC (from Arizona of all places, in fact) seems to denote the latter, but cynical as I am, oftentimes I am more inclined to suggest the former. Regardless, I will always hope that everyone has the more intellectually honest and best intentions.  What do you think? Are liberal or conservative Christians following their political party lines, taking up the Bible only when they need it?  or is it deeper and more nuanced than that?  Read the rest of this entry

Immigration Update

Governor Bentley, click for Birmingham News

Birmingham News is reporting that the State of Alabama has fired back at detractors to its new immigration law, issuing a 159-page statement to the courts on, essentially, why everyone who disagrees with them is wrong.  Governor Bentley’s document claims that HB56 does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity and that it does not conflict with the means and methods of the federal government in dealing with the issue of immigration. In other news, the law suit filed by the UMC, ECUSA, and the Roman Catholic Church has merged into a joint suit with other federal filings, including that of the United States Justice Department and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama (HICA).

Update: The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Alabama Education Association, National Education Association, Alabama NAACP, and the Fair Housing Centers of North, Central, and South Alabama all filed amicus curiae briefs contrary to the one released by the State of Alabama. Read more here.

If Baptists are Baptists

From Birmingham News

In a recent news article, the USAToday reported that Alabama churches were leading the charge again the new immigration law, recently passed. Now, something like this should not be surprising, but it is — and that is a testament to the Church’s failure in the social arena in recent years, particularly the evangelical Protestant Church.

The moment was particularly poignant in Birmingham where the churches became notorious for failing to act on civil rights issues in the twentieth century.  The Birmingham City Council, too, another body not too enthusiastic about desegregation during the civil rights era, unanimously called for the repeal of the immigration law.

Of the Christian churches present, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Roman Catholic Church all had made statements condemning the law, or at least criticizing it.  Conspicuously absent were the Alabama Baptists.  While the Cooperative Baptists were involved, it was stunning how the mainstream Baptists of Alabama looked so different from their Christian brothers and sisters who opposed the legislation.

Out of anyone in Alabama Churches, Baptists should have been the first to speak up.

Given our history and strong emphasis on the separation of the Church and the State, I fail to understand why my fellow Baptists in Alabama were not (and are not!) chomping at the bit, getting ready to combat the immigration law.  The substance of the Alabama law forbids even giving so much as a ride to someone who might be an illegal immigrant.  It effectively prohibits ministry to the population of illegal immigrants in the state.  Bishop William Willimon of the United Methodists claimed that in the wake of the April storms and the passage of the law, many were reluctant to seek aid because of the new law.  No one and nothing should get in the way of Baptists performing the ministerial functions of the Church, especially not the State.  When did the government get to decide to whom the Church ministered?

Reverend Mike Shaw of First Baptist Pelham reportedly said that he thinks the law should be enforced. Specifically he said, “I think all laws need to be enforced.”  All laws?  Is there no unjust law?  Is there any room for opposition to the injustice of the State in Shaw’s perspective?  I may not think Christians need to be in office to draft legislation, but that does not mean by any means that they should just acquiesce to any law regardless of its content.  Where would we be if Baptists had always done that?  We would probably still have segregation and might even have slavery.  It is an abhorrent, devastating, and dangerous position to just assume that every law should be enforced.

But what about Peter and Paul?  Does not Paul say, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God…”?  Does not Peter also say, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”?

I hate to break it to you, but I am in no way sure that still applies.

Let me explain.  Peter and Paul did not live in a democracy.  They lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire.  They had no say as to what laws were laws and what were not.  We do.  Their instructions probably had more to do with discouraging open rebellion against the government, which was impractical and only resulted in violence and death (think what happened in 70 CE in Jerusalem).  Paul’s exhortation to nonviolence in Romans 12 also forbids such an uprising, and that makes swallowing Romans 13 a little easier.

What would Paul say to our current situation?  Obviously, I can’t speak for him, but he says something right before Romans 13:1 that people so love to quote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  To comply and assent to injustice is to be overcome by evil (I admit, this is a weakness of those who only follow semiseriously the political philosophy I outlined last week).  Baptists, if Baptists are to be the Church, should join their Christian (and Jewish and Muslim!) brothers and sisters in Alabama in standing up for the rights of their family the government has labeled as untouchable.  For God knows no borders, no boundaries, no arbitrary demarcations of nations.  No wall, no law, no government can stand between God and his people.

Alabama Immigration, Part II

Earlier this month, I posted a piece about the recent Alabama immigration law. It was reposted by Church World Service and I received a lot of feedback both in online venues like Facebook and in person. In that article, I talked about what I termed “holy dissidents.”  I did not elaborate too much on that topic, choosing to dwell on the issue itself more for the time being.  However, in case you were wondering what such “holy dissidence” looks like, it happened this past week in Birmingham.

The Birmingham News reports of a candlelit march that took place in Alabama’s largest city on Saturday. Approximately 2,500 people from different religions, states, and communities gathered to march in silent protest of the new law (coming into effect on 1 September). Organizing via Facebook (I got the invitation but wasn’t in Birmingham Saturday night), other online website, and  undoubtedly by word of mouth, this group of “holy dissidents” showed resistance to what they saw as injustice perpetrated by the state of Alabama.

I applaud their efforts and especially the diversity represented by the crowd present. It is remarkable how people from all different socio-economic statuses, races and ethnicities, and religious convictions can come together and respond to oppression. It is this kind of solidarity that shows us that religious conviction in a pluralistic society is still relevant and good for the promotion of justice, peace, and human rights.  Read the rest of this entry

Alabama Immigration

via AP and AL.com

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Alabama’s governor this morning signed a tough new illegal immigration crackdownthat contains provisions requiring public schools to determine students’ immigration status and making it a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride.

The bill also allows police to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant if they’re stopped for any other reason. Alabama employers also are now required to use a federal system called E-Verify to determine if new workers are in the country legally.

-Associated Press

Read the rest of this entry

“Unbind him, and let him go.”

[[This is the sermon I preached last Sunday at Kyle Avenue Baptist Church in Alabama City.]]

“Unbind him, and let him go.”

10 April 2011

What do we do with a story that we have all heard?  This is the perennial problem when preaching out of the Gospels.  So often, we have heard this story before.  Is there even value in telling it again?  I think so.  I think the most powerful things that we do in the Church involve repetition, not novelty.  When we come to the Table for the Lord’s Supper, it is something we do the same almost every time, but it is in this repetition that it develops meaning.  It is in doing something again and again that you find purpose and reason in it.  These are like parts of a conversation.  In coming to the Table, we hear Christ say, “This is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  In doing so, we say amen with our actions.  Reading Scripture is not all that different.  When we come to Scripture, obviously we are usually not coming to it for the first time.  So when we read a passage that we have heard again and again, we ought to stop and listen.  Scripture, tradition, prayer — all of these are ways we talk with God.  Scripture is sacred space.  The Bible is not unlike a cathedral, I think.  When we approach it, we must do so with reverence and expect to encounter God there.  And if traditions like the Lord’s Supper and prayer are when we speak to God, it is in reading Scripture that we listen.  With that in mind, listen to the story of Lazarus as it is found in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John. Read the rest of this entry

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