It’s the first day of the new year. I’m sitting across from my wife, groggily sipping some necessarily strong coffee in a cozy and warm cafe.
“What have you learned in 2016?”
It’s good and healthy to ask that question. It helps us to reflect on the past, learn from it, then move on with this new year. It’s going to move on wether you’d like it to or not. The problem is that I would like it to move right along as soon as possible. I’m sure I’m not alone in that sentiment.
2016 was especially difficult. It was a dense year. Chock full of major world events, too many deaths that came way too soon, and one of the most difficult, ridiculous and devastating political elections in this country [especially for progressives]. Then there’s my own life: both my wife and I have experienced more change, growth, and newness in this last year than we ever have before. So when I’m asked, “what have you learned in 2016?” it’s a difficult question to answer because it seems as if the list may not end.
But I still have to answer. I have to start somewhere.
What I’ve included below is merely a start in a longer reflective process.
This is what we talked about as we both--together--began to answer that question.
What I’ve learned in 2016:
(1.) To take seriously the imperative, “love your neighbors as yourself” (mk. 12:31) is an impossibility unless I genuinely get to know who my neighbor is. Like that old scribe asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” (lk. 10:29), it goes to show what we know about Jesus’ teaching doesn't really mean much if we don't know how it works in our day to day. I think, deep down, we all assume what it looks like to love, but love is not an imposition onto others. What loving is for me can quite easily be unloving to another. I think this is primarily why Jesus answers the scribe with a parable: a story that by no means encapsulates every “neighbor” but somehow does. It provides a template for loving our neighbors by first hearing their story and seeing their experience and then letting that story tell us what love is for them. So this next year, I’m intentionally getting to know the “neighbors” in my life and asking, How do I know what “love” looks like for my neighbor if I do not know what it’s like to be my neighbor?
(2) What we think/believe needs a practical and applicative dimension. This one is especially hard for me. Ever since I was young, I have been captivated by critically thinking, doubting, and theologizing. I mean, I went to seminary and everything. But there came a particular point in all that studying and writing that my colleagues and I asked, “what’s the point if this does not make it into the streets?” In other words we were noticing this huge gulf between what happens in seminary and what happens in the everyday lives of people within our communities. What does it actually matter if our theology does not function? And it’s one thing to notice this problem but its a totally different beast to fix it. 2016 has been trying to reveal opportunities to put to work my theology: racial injustice, economic inequalities, ecological destruction, deeply rooted xenophobia; and these are just a few. For this next year; in my day to day, at home, at church, at work, at play, I am intently asking, what does the gospel have to do with this? What does it have to say?
(3) Progressive Christians, now more than ever, have to fight to rekindle and reattach Christianity to politics. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again: the gospel was political. Even the opening lines of Mark’s gospel was a political statement: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (mk. 1:1). This phrase was common around the Roman empire but with a twist. It was always “the good news of Caesar, the son of god.” When Mark and other gospel writers co-opted this rhetoric and applied it to Jesus they made a political and religious statement (religion and politics were not separate things then) and that the power of the empire is not divine but rather that god is on the side of the oppressed and the poor. This was derision and mockery for an Imperial Roman leader who brought “universal peace to all people” through violence. 2016 has shown us that if we want to carry on the goal of the gospel and bring Jesus’ "kingdom of god" to the earth, we need to actively participate in the political trajectory of wherever we live. This next year I'm making an even deeper commitment to the political nature of the gospel and encouraging my evangelical community to return to the political subversion that was Christ's life and ministry. I am imploring, don’t forget the necessary linkage between our religion and politics!
This list could easily go on, and on, and on, and on…
There is still so much that 2016 still has to teach me and I’m sure long after this post I’ll still be working over these lessons and more. I could write and write, and think, and talk, and blah blah blah…
But: it’s 1pm, Sunday, Janurary 1, 2017; the new year is already upon me…
Gotta get to work.
Advent and Christmas.
These are the liturgical times of the year in which Christians place front and center the coming and arrival of Christ into the world. They also indicate the inauguration of a new era. When Mark begins his gospel with, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” he does so in contrast to another kind of “good news”, that of Caesar’s.
The res gestae is an inscription found within Ancrya on the mausoleum of Augustus. It is a work of Roman propaganda that detailed the accomplishments of Caesar within the world. It remarks of land conquests, economic provisions, glorious luxury and universal peace; all brought to the world by Caesar. It presents a gloomy world that has now seen hope and prosperity in the divine success of Caesar. In fact, it was another inscription, called the Priene inscription (found in Asia Minor), that called Caesar's birth "good news to the world."
It is not hard to imagine the kind of derision Jesus’ own advent causes for empire. Jesus’ life, ministry and following is a mockery to Caesar's and was an act of social-political-religious rebellion against the empire. For every time a Roman citizen in the streets would say to one another “Caesar is Lord", there were Jesus' people: a poor and marginalized collective who's proclamation was that their true lord and king would inaugurate a new era and new kingdom where the last were first and the first were last.
Apropos this inauguration of Christ's "good news" against Caesar's, we find ourselves today facing our own inaugural event of empire: the presidency of Donald Trump. Almost comically this contrast can be most easily seen not even a day after Christmas—the celebration of Jesus as [Emmanuel] "god with us”—Trump tweets this:
Is Trump not doing exactly what Caesar had done for the Roman empire? Trump often uses this sudo-religious rhetoric in order to set himself up as a kind of messiah ideologue. He envisions himself--like Caesar--as a kind of savior who brings luxury, economic prosperity, and [to use his own words] hope. Of course, what we learn from things like the res gestae, is that self-declarative congratulatory boastings are likely far from facts and reality. The res gestae tends to gloss over events and facts that do not contribute to building up the image of Caesar. This is in fact what made the "good news" of Jesus so dangerous for Caesar's empire: it removed the ideological veil.
Does not the advent of Christ still operate as derision and subversion for today’s empires? How can the Church reconnect to the political message of Jesus' "good news" for the world? How do we embody that ministry of Christ in the face of Trump's empire for the next four years? What practical steps can we take in 2017 to fight for the marginalized? I don't have answers right now so much as I have encouragement.
There’s this saying, “a little yeast makes the whole batch of dough rise!”
It’s an idea within Jewish wisdom teaching that has been used in both the positive and the negative, to affirm and critique. It’s been used by Jesus, Paul, and prophets before them both. I kind of love it. Not just because it has to do with food (a little bit of that) but for how simple and true the statement is. Most powerfully, when it is used in Matthew 13:3, Jesus is speaking of how the kingdom of god will come about.
“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
As we fast approach 2017 and anticipate the [unfortunate] inauguration of a new era under Trump, there is a lot at stake for the church to consider and we might easily become overwhelmed by how daunting the struggle for progressive Christianity will be. Yet, despite how powerful empire always feels, what we learn from some of the earliest forms of Christianity is that there is power in the movement. We can make a difference. We decide the future of this planet and these people. You--yes, even you--are crucial components for building the kingdom of god Christ envisioned. Now is the time for all of our people to get involved. To organize, to plan, to advocate. To preach with our hands and pray with our feet. Whatever it takes. Because
it only takes a little bit of yeast to make a whole batch of dough rise!
For further reading...
Christ and the Caesars by Ethelbert Stauffer
Roman Emperor Worship by Louis Matthews Sweet
Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism (see pg. 76-80)
Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the liturgical season of Lent.
Lent is a time of preparation before Holy Week, the week preceding Easter. Though we are not entirely sure, Lent is believed to have begun as an intensive period of preparation for catechumens (converts under training) who will ultimately be baptized at the Easter Vigil. By the time of Augustine, this period of preparation for the forty days leading up to Easter became a practice for all Christians. During these forty days it became customary practice to fast from meats, except for on Sundays, to embody the same kind of preparation Jesus had undergone when he went out into the wilderness to fast and resist temptations for forty days before the start of his public ministry (Mark 1:12-13; Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12). While certainly not all traditions observe Lent--and many evangelical traditions merely practice giving up things for Lent rather than fasting from meats--Lent can be a crucial time of contemplation and resistance.
For the past two years I have been increasingly interested in the traditional observance of Lent by fasting from meat until the Easter Vigil. Since becoming fully engaged with Theologies of Food, I have found Lent to be an important opportunity for Christians to rethink their eating behaviors, diets, resources or economies. In my previous post where I offer a starting point for those interested in theologies of food, I explained that our greatest problem with food is that food has become commodified. I say this however with the sincere understanding that I too struggle with this poor relationship with food and as such I have been contemplating how Lent this year can be an opportunity for me to undo this commodification and get to know food in a different light.
I thought long and hard about what it is I could abstain from or what I can practice this year. Should I give up meat again? Should I only purchase local foods? Should I avoid fast food? Should I not eat out at all? Should I cook more?
While any one of these would certainly prove to cure a powerful Lenten experience, this year I have felt the need to keep it simple and begin with one of the easiest--or perhaps one of the hardest--practices with food: mindful eating.
Much like prayer, mindfulness at the table is a chance to consider what sits in front of you. To look at food and know it. It is a chance to silence the grumbling of ones stomach for a moment and to think about food differently; and to understand and acknowledge the connection between yourself, God and nature through the medium of food.
This year for Lent, I am keeping it simple. I am taking only two minutes (which feels much longer when you're hungry) to not dig in, to look at my plate, to be quite and to simply let God speak from the plate.
"By the sweat of your face
You will eat bread,
Till you return to the ground,
Because from it you were taken;
For you are dust,
And to dust you shall return.”
- Genesis 3:19
This is how we begin Lent. This verse is spoken at Ash Wednesday services all around. It calls us back to the Garden where the first food story was cultivated and where we first went wrong with how we consider food. And so my next forty days of mindful eating begins with a solemn contemplation of food. How I, just like Eve and Adam, took a second glance at food and thought of it as mine for the taking.
So you're sitting there hanging out with your friends. There's some decent wine, some laughs, some food and maybe some stories being passed around the table.
The doorbell rings. Surprise, it's Jesus!
You're like, "No way!"
He's like, "Yes way!"
You briefly exchange a hug as you explain how you "just can't believe" it's really him.
Then looking towards the fridge he asks, "so whatcha got to eat?"
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.
So what's up with Jesus, huh? I mean, doesn't it seem a little rude to just show up unannounced for a get-together and raid the pantry? While plenty of people would be quick to say that this is just Luke trying to help the readers understand that Jesus' resurrection was bodily, I think that there's more going on here than just proving Jesus' resurrected body had a stomach.
Jesus is a foodie apparently. All throughout Luke's gospel, we find Jesus eating and feeding. Here's the general breakdown:
Luke 5, Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners.
Luke 7, Jesus anointed during a meal.
Luke 9, Jesus feeds the five-thousand.
Luke 10, Jesus eats with Mary and Martha.
Luke 11, Jesus criticizes Pharisees and teachers during a meal.
Luke 14, While eating Jesus tells a parable about eating to teach others to invite the poor to eat with them.
Luke 19, Jesus invites himself to a meal with Zachaeus
Luke 22, Jesus' last meal.
Luke 24, You know...
The portrayal of Jesus in Luke's gospel is one that kind of pictures Jesus as a social butterfly: going from meal to meal and mingling with everyone around. I mean, he's even called a "glutton and a drunkard" (Luke 7:34). Luke's Jesus was pretty much a party animal. Of course, Jesus isn't just a foodie because he likes to eat (though I'm sure he did); Jesus is a foodie because meals offer moments of transformational opportunities. Of these opportunities, one that is most profound is radical hospitality.
From the very beginning of Luke's gospel in 2:7, the hospitality of God is displayed by serving Jesus to us on plate (an animals trough). Later in 22:19 Jesus serves us himself as bread to be eaten. Yet, it's not all about ourselves being served but back in Luke 14, Jesus gives one of his biggest food-teachings about how we are to serve each other. Here, Jesus is eating at a Pharisees house when they start to talk about a great eschatological banquet feast in the kingdom of God. Jesus proceeds to tell a parable about who will be invited. He says, "the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind" will be the ones invited to feast. Jesus is saying that radical hospitality is a fundamental key to cultivating the kingdom of god.
This is the kind of message that meals convey. Meals offer an opportunity for grace, radical inclusion, and social justice for "the other" within society. Food is for Luke the perfect tool for bringing about the kind of "kingdom of god" that Jesus spoke of. If so much of Jesus' teaching could be understood and practiced through hospitable eating, then it makes sense why Jesus would come back from the dead and ask for something to eat. Jesus is reaffirming the message he had been teaching them by letting them become hosts to him; and he was after all an outcast, a stain on society that was presumably eradicated and killed off.
After all maybe it makes sense that Jesus would crash your party and eat your food. He's not just trying to eat off your own plate, but perhaps Jesus is trying to reaffirm his message of radical hospitality and remind the disciples that they can still see the kingdom of God cultivated in their community.