the Way of Jesus: a litany

L:           Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.

P1:        Saying, the time is fulfilled.
P2:       The kingdom of God has come near.
P1:       Seek first the kingdom of God.
P2:       We pray: Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

L:           The kingdom may surely come in the future, but it is also in the present.

P1:       The kingdom of God is all around you.
P2:       The kingdom of God is right there in your presence.

L:          The kingdom of God is a vision of a community committed to a distinctive way of life.

P1:       The first followers of Jesus became known as the “followers of the Way.”
P2:       As they listened to his teachings, they put them into practice.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing radical love.

P1:       Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength.
P2:       Love your neighbor as yourself.
P1:       Treat others as you would have them treat you.
P2:       Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing lavish generosity.

P1:       Give to everyone who begs from you.
P2:       Do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
P1:       Lend, expecting nothing in return.
P2:       Sell your possessions, and give money to the poor.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing extravagant forgiveness.

P1:       Forgive and you will be forgiven.
P2:       Pray for those who mistreat you.
P1:       Bless those who curse you.
P2:       Forgive seventy times seven times.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing inclusive hospitality.

P1:       He welcomed the rejected and outcasts.
P2:       He touched and healed the unclean and diseased.
P1:       He shared meals with the despised and marginalized.
P2:       He blessed the destitute, the hungry, and the weeping.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing compassionate action.

P1:       Jesus was moved with compassion to heal the sick.
P2:       Jesus was moved with compassion to feed the hungry crowds.
P1:       The Samaritan was moved by compassion for the man by the side of road.
P2:       The father was moved by compassion for his prodigal son.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing selfless service.

P1:       Feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty.
P1:       Clothe the naked and care for the sick.
P1:       Visit the imprisoned.
P2:       Welcome the stranger and immigrant.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing a passion for justice.

P1:       Bring good news to the poor and oppressed.
P2:       Strive first for God’s justice.
P1:       Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.
P2:       Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing creative nonviolence.

P1:       If anyone hits you on your right cheek, offer him your left cheek too.
P2:       If anyone forces you to go one mile, then go two miles.
P1:       If anyone takes your coat, give him the shirt off your back too.
P2:       If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

L:           Following Jesus means practicing simple living.

P1:       One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.
P2:       Do not worry about what you will eat.
P1:       Do not worry about what you will drink.
P2:       Do not worry about what you will wear.

L:           Jesus taught a way of costly commitment which led to the cross.

P1:       Empower us to respond to the call of Jesus.
P2:       To give up self-centered ambition.
P1:       To take up our crosses.
P2:       And to follow Jesus.

 

Joined with Love: a wedding hymn

In community we gather,
Off’ring blessings on this day.
Friends and fam’ly joined together,
Raising voices now to pray.
May your journey from this moment
Be in God’s embracing care –
Like a mother, like a father,
Giving freely, always there.

May your days be filled with wonder,
May your nights be safe from fear.
May you learn to love each other
Ever more from year to year.
May you give to one another
Gifts of gentleness and grace;
Partners in a life together,
Hand in hand through time and space.

May your light shine in the darkness,
May your words be strong and bold.
May your love and your compassion,
Be a sign to young and old.
May your hearts accept all others,
Strangers, friends, and enemies.
May your lives reflect God’s kingdom,
Breaking down all boundaries.

May you build on strong foundations
A creation of your own,
Structured to withstand the ages,
Stronger still than brick or stone.
Joined with love, and care, and patience,
Built with tenderness and tears,
Crafted with a joyful spirit,
That endures throughout the years.

 

Music: “Hymn of Joy” by Ludwig van Beethoven
© 1999 Kurt Struckmeyer

(For the wedding of Amy Struckmeyer and Jim Skalla)

For Life and Love: a wedding hymn

Like potter’s clay on spinning wheel,
Grasped by strong hands that push and pull,
Our lives take shape in height and breadth,
In form and grace most wonderful.

Our vision shaped by hands of love,
What we have known is what we see.
We look at life as through a lens.
The eyes of love see differently.

As hatred blooms around the world,
As evil reigns and has its way,
The eyes of love are filled with hope.
Hate cannot last, love comes to stay.

So come now friends and family
In celebration, share in song.
That these two lives conceived in love
Will now be joined, their whole life long.

And may our prayers be offered here
That each may grow as husband, wife;
That love may bloom and bring new joy,
Transcending death, transforming life.

We raise our thanks and praise to God
With flute and pipe, with strings and voice;
We lift our hearts in gratitude
For life and love. Let all rejoice!

 

Music: “The Water Is Wide” – Traditional
© 2002 Kurt Struckmeyer

(For the wedding of Sara Struckmeyer and Chris Masson)

the common good

Early in the book of Acts, we are given a glimpse of the Jesus movement in the city of Jerusalem in the weeks and months after his execution. Their life together reflected the contours of the ministry Jesus proclaimed among the peasants of Galilee: love one another, care for one another, support one another, and share generously with one another.

Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at one house after another and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.[1]

Later, we read this similar account:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the possessions belonging to him was his own, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.[2]

It appears from these texts that community members were not required to sell everything and become homeless. They met and ate in one another’s homes, indicating that they still maintained private home ownership and their furnishings, but sold other land and income property beyond what was needed for their own shelter. The message of Jesus was that the accumulation of personal wealth for one’s future was a spiritual problem. It can lead to self-concern and selfishness. Sufficiency for the day was the goal. Everything beyond that was dedicated to a common purse to help clothe, feed, and house the less fortunate in the community and those who fell on hard times.

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the judgment of Jesus

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.

—Jesus, according to Matthew

 

I have recently received feedback from people who feel I am judging and shaming those who hold political views that harm marginalized people in our society. Many people believe that Jesus taught only spiritual truths and did not care about the politics and economics of his day, even though they had a great impact on the poor peasants and fishermen who followed him. A close reading of the gospels tells a different story. Jesus was very concerned about oppressive political regimes and an economy of commercialized agriculture that was impoverishing the peasants of Palestine at an alarming rate, and he offered a contrasting vision of society—the kingdom of God.

moral choices

Throughout our lives we are faced with moral choices, both personally and politically. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will someday judge between those individuals who choose to practice compassionate action (the righteous) versus those whose indifferent inattention does nothing to help the conditions of poor and marginalized people. His judgement was not meant solely for interpersonal interactions, but also for the corporate actions of social groups—the “nations.” Surely no follower of Jesus believes that their personal charity and service can be separated from their social and political actions. You cannot serve two masters.

The word righteous in this text may need some clarification because the common understanding of righteousness is 1) being morally right, or 2) being right with God. But a more holistic biblical understanding of righteousness is standing up for what is right—doing what is right and just. Righteousness means seeking justice in human society. A righteous person is one who seeks economic and social justice for poor and marginalized people.

The terms righteousness and justice are often linked in biblical texts. That is because they are synonymous, redundant terms. In the original languages of the Bible, the word for justice also means righteousness. The Greek word dikaios (DIK-ah-yos) in the New Testament and the word tzedakah (tze-dah-KAH) in the Hebrew Bible have this dual meaning. Righteousness implies a personal and individual dimension, while justice implies a social dimension, but they both have the same objectives—acting on behalf of those suffering from hunger, poverty, sickness, injustice, discrimination, and imprisonment.

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the complicity of moderates in Nazi Germany

This blog post is a follow-up to a previous post, “the complicity of moderates.” It apparently offended a small number of self-disclosed moderates on Facebook who felt that my intention was to shame them. That was not my intention. Some claimed that they actually took stands as needed, but then their stand would have been necessarily toward one extreme or another, to the right or to the left, because there is no clearly defined middle way to respond to evil.

As a response, I will use an example from my first book.[1] It has to do with the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, a nation of about 60 million people. In the early 1930s, two-thirds of the population was Protestant (about 40 million members) and the remaining third was Roman Catholic (about 20 million). Less than 1 percent (600,000) were Jewish.

Because the modern state of Germany was created from of a number of small independent principalities and kingdoms in the late nineteenth century, the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) Protestant churches of Germany remained separated as 28 independent regional bodies reflecting their origins as small state-sponsored churches (Landeskirchen) with the local ruler as head. In 1922, they formed a loose federation to participate jointly in mission activities, but they did not come together as one unified church until April 1933 when the German Evangelical Church (Deutsche Evangelische Kirche) was created under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Only months earlier, in January 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) had appointed Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) as Chancellor of Germany. When Hindenburg died the following year, Hitler combined the offices of chancellor and president and became the nation’s dictator. Many Christians in Germany openly welcomed Hitler’s National Socialist (Nazi) party to power as a historic moment of Christ’s work on earth for and through the Aryan Volk (German for people).

As it rose to power in the 1930s, the Nazi message was that in spite of their God-given destiny, the nation was threatened from within by the insidious presence of Communists, Jews, and liberals in their midst. Hitler told the nation that their duty was to purify themselves of these influences to prepare for their divine vocation as God’s anointed nation. His message was that he would make Germany great again.

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the complicity of moderates

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

 

I wish you were either hot or cold; if I had my way you’d be one way or the other, all the way, but you lukewarm types, you passionless types, you make me want to vomit.[1]

—John of Patmos, speaking for God (late first century)

 

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

—Edmund Burke (1770)

The well-known quote attributed to statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) perfectly describes the role played by moderates and political independents in any society—good people who do nothing to stop the triumph of evil.

The persistence of evil in a nation is more due to the inaction and inattention of political and religious moderates than it is to the actions of dedicated white supremacists and authoritarian politicians. Throughout history, those who consider themselves moderates, centrists, and independents have, by their silence, been complicit with the rule of autocrats and evil regimes. Whether they realize it or not, they are often collaborators with tyrants and despots. They have historically allowed racism, misogyny, antisemitism, ethnic cleansing, war, poverty, and oppression to flourish by their self-centered lack of attention and action.

In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1929–1968) wrote:

We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be coworkers with God.

Today, political moderates and centrists like to portray themselves as common-sense people who keep an open mind on issues, are willing to listen to different viewpoints, think for themselves, and are not extreme in their beliefs. These are the so-called independent voters who do not strongly affiliate with either major party or their ideologies. They often feel themselves to be above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us.

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compassion in action: charity, service, and justice

Compassion is a feeling of empathy with the suffering of others, the capacity to feel how others feel. The Latin root of the word compassion is a compound of com (with) and passio (suffer), which gives us the meaning to suffer with. Compassion is entering into the pain of another. It is feeling the suffering of someone else—experiencing it, sharing it, tasting it. It is identifying with the sufferer, being in solidarity with the sufferer.

True compassion is being so moved at a gut level that we are moved to the point of action. Jesus was moved by compassion for the poor. We are told that, “He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36) And in the parable of the Good Samaritan he demonstrated that the one who loves the neighbor is the one who shows compassion on the one who suffers, even if that person is culturally defined as the enemy.

Marcus Borg (1942–2015) has said that, “For Jesus, compassion was the central quality of God and the central moral quality of a life centered in God.” The Pharisees represented a theology of holiness, according to Borg, which was based on holiness as a defining characteristic of God: “Be holy for I, Yahweh, am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Jesus proclaimed a theology of compassion based on an alternative characterization of God’s essence: “Be compassionate as your Father in heaven is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36) These differing theologies led them to different ways of living.

compassionate action

Compassionate action usually takes three forms: charity, service, and justice. Although some would include service under the first category, charity more specifically involves gifts of money, clothing, food, or other material goods, but does not necessarily involve an investment of our time and talents. Charity is important, but writing a check to a worthy does not really change us in a fundamental way. Although charitable giving demonstrates a generous nature, we often remain distant from those we seek to help. Service, however, involves us face-to-face with those in need. It can be an immensely transformative experience that can change us from our natural state of self-centeredness into increasingly selfless people. Perhaps it is the only thing that will. Although generosity sometimes leads to self-satisfaction, service often becomes a very humbling experience.

Charity and service are both personal forms of compassionate action. Their objective is to alleviate the effects of suffering in the world. Justice, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate the root causes of suffering. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929–1968) said:

We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice that produces beggars needs restructuring.

Justice is focused on transforming the social structures and systems that produce poverty and suffering. Justice is the social form of compassionate action. It is the political means of caring for the least of these. The difference between charity and service on the one hand and justice on the other is this: charity and service seek to heal wounds, while justice seeks to end the social structures that create wounded people in the first place. William Sloane Coffin (1924–2006) has said: “The bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice, than in eliminating the causes of it.” Still, all three of these are necessary components of what German martyr and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) described as righteous action in the world. Together, righteous action and contemplative prayer would form the essence of a  “religionless Christianity” in our day.

Our being Christian today will be limited to two things: prayer and righteous action among [humanity]. All Christian thinking, speaking, and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.

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the politics of Jesus

Part 1: the politics of the domination system

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word politikos, meaning “of, for, or relating to the polis.” Polis literally means ‘city’ in Greek. It can also mean ‘citizenship’ and ‘body of citizens.’ Pete Seeger once said that politics happens whenever we bring people together.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE) wrote an eight-volume book called Politiká, a dissertation on governing and governments. In his case, he was concerned with the Greek city-state. He saw politics as our “social relations involving authority or power.” Aristotle classified a number of real and theoretical states according to their constitutions. On one side stand the true (or good) constitutions, which aim for the common good, and on the other side the perverted (or deviant) ones, considered such because they aim for the well-being of only a part of the city.

Here are his opening lines: “Since we see that every city-state is a sort of community (in Greek, koinônia, pronounced koy-nohn-EE-ah) and that every community (koinônia) is established for the sake of some good (for everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good), it is clear that every community (koinônia) aims at some good, and the community (koinônia) which has the most authority of all and includes all the others aims highest, that is, at the good with the most authority.”

Politics has to do with how we structure our life together as a society—either for the sake of the common good or for the sake of a privileged few. This includes our overarching economic system, taxation policies, governing budgets, the rights of citizens, social justice, and human equality.

When we discuss the politics of Jesus, we must first understand the political structures of first-century Roman Palestine, which was an occupied province of the Roman Empire. Rather than Aristotle’s city-state organized for the common good, Jesus experienced three despotic structures of government organized for a privileged few at the expense of the vast majority. Galilee was a monarchy ruled by Herod Antipas. After the removal of his brother Herod Archelaus by Rome in 6 CE, Judea was ruled directly by a Roman Procurator who reported to the governor of Syria. However, the day-to-day operations were entrusted to a wealthy oligarchy (meaning ‘the ruling few’) of the Sadducees, sometimes referred to in the gospels as “the leaders of the people,” or “the chief priests and the elders.” In conquered territories, it was always Rome’s practice to find indigenous collaborators to rule on their behalf. And they always chose people from the wealthy class who saw it in their personal interest to support power when it advantaged them. On top of these structures was an emperor in Rome who was essentially a self-appointed dictator. So Jesus was confronted by a monarchy in Galilee, an oligarchy in Jerusalem, and a dictatorship in Rome. Continue reading

the kingdom of God: an introduction

The time is fulfilled, the kingdom is at hand. (Mark 1:15)

The kingdom of God has come upon you. (Luke 11:20)

The kingdom of God is among you. (Luke 17:21)

The kingdom of God is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it. (Gospel of Thomas 11)

At the heart of the gospel of Jesus is the kingdom of God. This one phrase sums up the entire ministry of Jesus and his whole life’s work. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the New Testament was written in Greek. The expression kingdom of Godbasileia tou theou (bas-il-EH-ah too THEH-oo) in Greek and malkutha d’elaha (mal-KOOTH-ah dehl-ah-HAH) in Aramaic—points to the ruling activity of God over human social relationships.

As we read the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we see that every thought and saying of Jesus was directed and subordinated to one single thing: the realization of the reign of God’s love, compassion, justice, and peace within human society. Although Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God frequently, he never clearly defined it. Instead, he spoke of it in parables, comparing something familiar (mustard seed, leaven, lost coins, a man who sowed a field) with something unfamiliar.

Then he said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it?” (Luke 13:18)

Therefore, we must always test any proposed definition or meaning of the kingdom against the parables. Over the centuries, a variety of interpretations of what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God have been put forth. We will briefly examine six of the most common explanations: the reign of God as 1) heaven, 2) an inner spiritual experience, 3) the church, 4) a separate society, 5) a new state, and 6) a new world. Continue reading

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