JPMorgan: Banking on an Apocalypse

JPMorgan: Banking on an Apocalypse
February 21, 2020
by David R. Weiss

It might be impossible to overstate the weight of JPMorgan Chase’s recent report to its clients.

Last fall, an analysis by The Guardian revealed that—since the Paris Climate Agreement was reached in December 2015—JPMorgan has financed more new fossil fuel projects than any other bank in the world: $75 billion from 2016 through the first half of 2019.[1] Facing a growing wave of protests over its ongoing investment in ecocidal industries, the firm responded with a statement that said in part “We work to advance environmental sustainability within our business activities and facilities. We recognize the complexity of climate change issues and actively engage with a diverse set of stakeholders to understand their views. We firmly believe that balancing environmental and social issues with financial considerations is fundamental to sound risk management.”

Yesterday we learned that engaging with their stakeholders involved admitting (in a January 14 report) that climate change might well kill us all.[2] That’s not an easy admission for an investment firm to make, least of all one so heavily invested in the very industry most implicated in disrupting the climate. If scientists tend to be measured in their assessments (and they do—it’s built into the scientific method), bankers are even more measured. So when JPMorgan Chase, after leading the way in fossil fuel investment over the past few years, writes to its clients, “We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened,” that’s sort of a “Holy Shit!” moment.

The January report didn’t sugarcoat anything. Noting the past failure of global markets to address the damage being done to our climate, it predicted that both lagging government policy and unchecked business competitiveness would foster continued failure, concluding that it is “likely the [climate] situation will continue to deteriorate, possibly more so than in any of the IPCC’s scenarios” (emphasis mine). Have you read those worst case IPCC scenario’s?! To suggest they fall short of laying out the stakes of climate breakdown is absolutely terrifying.

The report also shares, in the dispassionate prose of bank-talk, “Although precise predictions are not possible, it is clear that the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.” So let me ask you, when was the last time you heard an investment firm use the word IF with reference to the survival of the human race? I’m betting: NEVER.

The is not the first time I’ve contemplated the notion that, not simply widespread societal collapse but outright human extinction in the next two centuries is quite possibly the climate tab we’ve run up by now. It’s just the first time I’ve had an investment firm willing to back me up on that.

So what now? I’ll say three things.

First, you OUGHT to be scared shitless. I think there is no question that the prospects for catastrophic climate disruption are far worse than most of us realize. Not among the climate scientists whose psyches are increasingly anxious and depressed. And not among various agencies where climate conversations are kept behind closed doors. But the words of our politicians and those of mainstream media are shaped more by money than by science. But now that even the big money is talking about human extinction, who knows where these others will take their cues from. (Some, no doubt, will escalate the rhetoric of othering, because fomenting fear is one proven way to consolidate power. We see that beginning already today.)

Second, NOTHING is certain. The details of our potential demise may prove to be over drawn … or understated. In any event, investment firms always include a disclaimer lest you gamble too much of your stock on even their best advice. So don’t throw up your hands just yet. But you damn well better be on the edge of your seat by now. Because even the realistically best case outcomes involve the unsettling of civilization from its moorings. There is NO future that is not a rocky ride. But there might be several potential tomorrows in which human extinction does not figure. If that relieves you, go back to my first point because we can’t afford relief right now. We need pitched tension to harness the energy necessary in this uncertain moment.

Third, pick up your cello.

As I gathered my thoughts in silence after reading The Guardian piece tonight, my mind turned to Vedran Smailović. In 1992 he became known as “the cellist of Sarajevo” when he choose to play his cello for twenty-two days in the midst of a ruined town square after a mortar blast killed twenty-two people simply waiting in line for bread. Against the backdrop of a city undone by the worst impulses of a twisted humanity, Smailović choose beauty. His cello playing—an act of reckless courage—was at once a judgment against the madness that reduced the city to ruins and a testament to the unbowed beauty of the human soul.

It’s time for each of us to pick up our cellos. The impulse will be to pick up our guns … or devolve into despair. We must fight both of those impulses. Instead, bracing yourself for the inevitability of death, choose to make beauty, come what may.

For me, that choice means articulating the theology that can keep our humanity from fraying while fraying is exactly what our climate will be doing. It means writing directly about climate so that we can name, face, and fathom the peril that approaches. But it also means crafting an entire progressive theology—accessible to lay people—that anchors meaning in our daily lives: from birth to death and embracing all the tumult and transition in between. We will need that tune (rooted in God’s grace!) faithfully serenading us in the midst of both real and metaphoric buildings that will be in ruins around us. It means using my gift of words to celebrate instances of transcendent joy that seem to have no justification—and yet are—as well as to plumb the depths of anguish that will be ours to own.

That’s my cello. And I’m quietly, busily tuning it up.

Might I suggest that you look inward and outward—to your own gifts, passions, and skills—to ask yourself in full earnest what your cello will be. And then start tuning it up as well. With JPMorgan now banking on an apocalypse, it’s time for a whole bunch of us to start banking on beauty and faith instead.

*    *    *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/top-investment-banks-lending-billions-extract-fossil-fuels

[2] www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/feb/21/jp-morgan-economists-warn-climate-crisis-threat-human-race

LENT 2020: Keeping Faith on a Fragile Planet

LENT 2020 – Deepening our Journey with Jesus: Keeping Faith on a Fragile Planet
February 20, 2020
David R. Weiss

NOTE: You can download this calendar in two forms:
8.5×14 set up in 4 columns to be printed double-sided on a single page easy folding.
8.5×11 set up in a single column; less fancy but on standard paper.

Introduction. Lent is a season of spiritual discipline. This Lenten calendar invites you to “sample” a variety of disciplines that can help us “keep faith on a fragile planet.” Each Sunday sets gratitude as the wellspring of our actions. The remaining days (the actual 40 days of Lent) offer actions to take. Some are one-time actions while others could become habits. Follow the calendar as closely—or as loosely—as you wish. View these daily suggestions as persistent invitations, not demands. At the end of Lent, consider adopting 3 or 4 of the actions you took and making them into habits, weaving them into the rhythm of your life.

February 26 – Ash Wednesday
Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. Both your life and the entire planet are framed by finitude as one facet of creation’s goodness. Say a prayer asking God’s companionship as you journey toward a more faithful relationship with finitude this season.

Thursday, February 27
Pick one meal/day or one day/week to say a table prayer. (If this is a new commitment, find a way to remind yourself.) Include thanks for the earth, weather, pollinators, farm labor, etc., in your prayers.

Friday, February 28
Make your Lenten fish fry “fish fair.” Seafood Watch’s consumer guide can help you choose fish that are plentiful and sustainably fished. Pick up a wallet-sized guide to have with you when shopping. http://www.seafoodwatch.org

Saturday, February 29
Give up water in single-use plastic bottles—and not just for Lent, but for good. (And for the planet’s sake!) Buy a reusable water bottle or two and establish a routine to use them instead. Watch “The Story of Bottled Water” (8 min.) at http://www.storyofstuff.org.

Sunday, March 1
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of Wind and Air you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From birds and bees to billowing clouds and frosty breath and much more …

Monday, March 2
Try Meatless Mondays for Lent. Meat production puts more CO2 into the air (which warms our climate) than any other food. If you aren’t ready to go vegetarian, cutting back even once a week helps. Find recipes at http://www.meatlessmonday.com

Tuesday, March 3
Two-trip Tuesdays. Plan your errands for the week. Fewer trips means fewer emissions. Try to eliminate single-stop trips during Lent. If, each time you get in your car, you do two (or more) errands, you’ll save gas, time, and emit less CO2.

Wednesday, March 4
Take a mid-week walk. Stroll or roll outdoors for 15-30 minutes today. Notice the wind and the air. They’re happy to have your company. Remember how grateful you are for theirs.

Thursday, March 5
Try out a shampoo bar for Lent. (You can find them at any food co-op.) You’ll get all the suds, shine, and clean—and none of the plastic bottle.

Friday, March 6
Watch the short (20 min.) animated film “The Story of Stuff” online. It’s an accessible and unsettling picture of how much we’re living at odds with our own planet. Find it & other eco-shorts at http://www.storyofstuff.org.

Saturday, March 7
Can you share a ride with someone to church on Sunday? Today’s the day to set that up. You’ll not only save gas, you’ll also have a chance to make or deepen a friendship.

Sunday, March 8
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of Fire and Energy you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From warm homes and cooked food to rumbling volcanoes and whirring machines and much more …

Monday, March 9
Time for another Meatless Monday. If you already eat meatless, make it an Animal-Free Monday and eat vegan (no meat, eggs, or dairy).

Tuesday, March 10
Sign up for a weekly CSA (“community supported agriculture”) box for the summer. Sign-ups are happening right NOW. Most CSAs offer half-shares for smaller families. It’s food—straight from Mother Earth.

Wednesday, March 11
Check the temperature setting on your hot water heater. If it’s higher than 120o (indicated by the triangle mark on most dials), turn it back to 120 o. Every 10 degrees you turn it down from 150-140-130 (marked as C, B, A on most dials) will save 3-5% in energy costs.

Thursday, March 12
Make it “Just the Cup” Thursday everyday. Do you really need that plastic lid and straw? Sometimes you do. But not always. And those plastic lids & straws rarely get recycled. So as often as you can, go with “just the cup.”

Friday, March 13
Give your fridge and freezer a quick Friday tune-up. Dusty coils can reduce their efficiency by as much as 25%. Vacuum the coils; you’ll save money, they’ll last longer, and the planet breathes easier. Need help? Ask a friend and build community at the same time!

Saturday, March 14
Step back from the beef. If you eat meat, any meat that’s not beef (pork, lamb, turkey, chicken) is easier on our climate. Trade out one beef meal over the next week for a different meat choice. The planet will thank you.

Sunday, March 15
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of Earth you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From mountains and deserts to forests and jungles and much more …

Monday, March 16
Keep up that Meatless (or Animal-Free) Monday —that’s how habits form. Jot down a few menu ideas so you have them ready for more Mondays.

Tuesday, March 17
Two-trip Tuesdays. Plan your errands for the week. Fewer trips means fewer emissions. Try to eliminate single-stop trips during Lent. If each time you get in your car, you do two (or more) errands, you’ll save gas, time, and emit less CO2.

Wednesday, March 18
Take a mid-week walk. Stroll or roll outdoors for 15-30 minutes today. Feel the earth beneath your feet. She’s happy to have your company. Remember how grateful you are for hers.

Thursday, March 19
Carry the EWG (Environmental Working Group) “Clean Fifteen” & “Dirty Dozen” cards to guide your produce shopping and avoid the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues. Get a card at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews.

Friday, March 20
Kiss those plastic shopping bags good-bye. Make the switch to sturdy re-usable bags for shopping. Build the habit to keep a couple in your car all the time. The little things DO add up.

Saturday, March 21
Can you share a ride with someone to church on Sunday—or to somewhere else in the next week? Today’s the day to set that up. You’ll save gas—and have a chance to make or deepen a friendship.

Sunday, March 22
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of Water you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From lakes and waterfalls to mists and fog and much more … Today is World Water Day!

Monday, March 23
Another Meatless (or Animal-Free Monday—almost a habit by now …

Tuesday, March 24
In light of World Water Day (3/22), remember your own “water day”—your baptism. Recall how water, through its felt wetness, wrapped you in grace. From oceans to ice caps to nearby rivers and lakes water is under assault today. Hold all water in a moment of prayer.

Feast of Annunciation – March 25
Today marks Gabriel’s visit to Mary to announce her pregnancy with Jesus (Luke 1:26). Write a short note to a child in your life (family/church). Share what you’re doing to help the planet. Be hopeful not fearful. Mail it or keep it to yourself.

Thursday, March 26
Try a milk alternative. Dairy has a huge carbon footprint. Oat & hemp are the “greenest” nondairy milks, then soy & rice. Avoid almond & coconut milks; both have ecological drawbacks.

Friday, March 27
Next time you wash clothes, hang most or all of them up inside and let the air dry them. Just toss them in the dryer for a few minutes at the end to get the wrinkles out. You’ll save energy, add some humidity to your indoor air, and reduce CO2 emissions.

Saturday, March 28
Participate in Earth Hour by turning off all non-essential lights from 8:30-9:30 p.m.—including all TV, phone, and computer screens. Consider listening to the radio, singing songs, or telling stories by candlelight. Learn more at http://www.earthhour.org

Sunday, March 29
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of Animals you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From pets and wild beasts to backyard critters and bugs and much more …

Monday, March 30
Meatless (or Animal-Free) Monday! But then, you knew that, didn’t you?

Tuesday, March 31
Two-trip Tuesdays. Plan your errands for the week. Fewer trips means fewer emissions. Try to eliminate single-stop trips during Lent. If each time you get in your car, you do two (or more) errands, you’ll save gas, time, and emit less CO2.

Wednesday, April 1
Take a mid-week walk. Stroll or roll outdoors for 15-30 minutes today. Notice the critters (pets, squirrels, bugs!) you see … and consider the ones you don’t—especially endangered species. They’re all in this with you. Remember you’re in this with them.

Thursday, April 2
Take in your own take out containers. Keep a couple re-useable containers right in your car—and use them to bring home any restaurant leftovers.

Friday, April 3
Ditch the plastic bag lining your kitchen garbage can. Use a paper grocery bag instead. Or look for “extra strong” compostable bag liners. (You can find them at a local Co-op; stronger than regular compost bags, they’ll hold together until they hit the landfill.

Saturday, April 4
Another ride-share Saturday. Plan ahead for Sunday or another occasion.

Palm Sunday – April 5
Practice gratitude. Set aside 10-15 minutes to simply reflect on aspects of People you are grateful for or that fill you with awe. From saints and siblings to ancestors and those yet to be born and much more …

Monday, April 6
Meatless (or Animal-Free) Monday! Congratulate yourself on completing this practice. Better yet, raise a simple toast to a new habit for a healthier planet—and a healthier you!

Tuesday, April 7
Jesus has reached Jerusalem, but countless refugees and immigrants, uprooted by climate disruption and its related political turmoil, are still afoot today—including on our southern border. Pray that God’s love—and our compassion—enfold them all.

Wednesday, April 8
Midweek Local Market Day. Jesus’ disciples got all their food for the Last Supper locally. Try that yourself this week or next. Shop at a local market or buy as much locally-produced food as you can (many stores identify their local products).

Maundy Thursday – April 9
Today we remember the first Communion and Jesus’ call to love one another. Consider how this meal and this commandment link us to all persons across the globe. Pray that your own love rises to this high and holy task.

Good Friday – April 10
As we recall Jesus’ death on the cross, we dare to allow our grief to run deeper than we thought possible. We need that depth of grief to encompass Earth these days. God holds all suffering in God’s heart. We must seek to do the same.

Holy Saturday – April 11
Jesus is in the grave today. We’ll all be in the grave someday. But most modern burial practices keep us disconnected from Earth. Consider whether you’re willing to reclaim our kinship with the ground and explore a green burial option. One place to start is: http://www.greenburialcouncil.org.

Easter Sunday – April 12
Bear witness! What have you learned, felt, or experienced as a result of your Lenten practice? Can you identify a couple actions that you’d like to turn into habits? By now you have a good start on a couple of them. But share your experience and your commitment with someone else. (Bear witness!) That sharing not only helps deepen your resolve, it also plants seeds in others.

Christ is Risen. We are risen indeed!


A Word of Thanks …
Thank you for using this calendar in whatever way worked for you. I hope it supports a meaningful Lenten season … and that it might actually sow seeds of renewal in your life well beyond Lent. I believe the Gospel—the message of God’s love that Jesus brought … and lived … and died for—includes all of creation. With so much of creation in peril these days, it seems appropriate to keep company with Jesus during Lent by taking modest but intentional steps to be in solidarity with the world that God so loves. —David

Credits

David Weiss created this Lenten Calendar drawing on a variety of sources, but the final product, both in content and design is his own. The practice of “coming from gratitude” is central to Active Hope (Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, New World Library, 2012). These other sources were especially helpful in generating specific ideas:

Additionally, special thanks to Tracy Kugler for her gentle insistence on a Lenten resource that didn’t just offer a plethora of good ideas, but one that actually supported building new habits to last beyond Lent.

A Creation Justice Church resource produced in part for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, St. Paul, Minnesota.

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on February 20, 2020. 1 Comment

Madagascar’s Four Unlikely Evangelists

Madagascar’s Four Unlikely Evangelists
February 8, 2020
David R. Weiss

You won’t recognize their names among the four evangelists in the New Testament, but Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria count as ironic evangelists in my book. Taken together their exploits in the 2005 animated kids film Madagascar offer an unexpectedly vivid lesson about the gospel. Ironic because the story seems not even to notice the power of the message hidden within it. But once you realize it, you can’t un-realize it—which makes it a pretty effective lesson.

The movie, you might recall, features the antics of a talking zebra (Marty), lion (Alex), giraffe (Melman), and hippo (Gloria), who, through a series of misadventures find themselves relocated from a city zoo to the island of Madagascar. Every movie (even a kids flick) needs a crisis to resolve; it’s the emotional engine that drives the plot. In this film, alongside much silliness aimed at both kids and their parents, the crisis that emerges is Alex’s appetite. The other three animals, all herbivores, find Madagascar a relative restaurant of delights. But Alex, the lion, has always dined on raw steak. Never having had to stare his dinner in the eyes before eating it, Alex is understandably distressed as he begins to see every creature on the island—including his friends—as potential food. How can he possibly eat meat that talks?!

Fast forward to the end of the movie (SPOLIER ALERT) and the crisis is resolved when the near-frantic animals discover that Alex can survive by eating the fish who swim in the waters off the coast of the island. And eating fish allows Alex to satisfy his hunger in a way that satisfies even the most sentimental viewer. Why? Because, of all the animals in Madagascar—and quite unlike the counterparts in Finding Nemo—the fish don’t talk.

Lacking any lines (they’re the only animals in the entire film that aren’t personified with speech) they never become characters in their own right. And having been rendered voiceless, they become, quite literally, fair game for resolving the crisis without anyone feeling bad for them. If the fish in Madagascar had been given voices like the sea creatures in Finding Nemo, you can bet more than a few kids would’ve bawled in protest while Alex resolved his issues at the fish’s expense.

Sometimes insight comes from unexpected places … like an animated children’s movie. Madagascar, if we dare listen beyond the giggles, speaks a powerful truth about the precarity of those left—in fact, rendered—voiceless in our society. You can quibble that carnivores must “by nature” eat meat. True enough, but a film filled with talking animals isn’t finally about “nature”; it’s about friendship. And, ultimately (although the movie itself doesn’t go this far because it’s content to let the voiceless fish fix everything) it’s about human society.

The ironic message (unintended but crystal clear if you’re a kid who knows in other tales that fish also talk) is that until every person becomes a character with a voice, you really don’t know whether you’ve resolved your issues or not.[1]

Thus, Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria are indeed evangelists, luring us to a vantage point where we can begin to reckon the conditions for a society that truly includes everyone. And the measure for that society is NOT the fortunes (economic, social, or otherwise) of those with the most agency, but the fate of those with the least.

Finally, Jesus makes the same point in Matthew 25:31-46 where he calls us to bequeath our best deeds toward “the least of these, all members of my family”—as those in whom we see the visage of Jesus himself. But lest we make this a litmus test of “Christian” behavior, the heart of Jesus’ words is that authentic human community dawns when we intuit the full presence of humanity in each person we encounter.

That message, from Madagascar to Matthew 25, is crucial for these times. As climate disruption creeps (and races) across the globe our tendency will be to “solve” things in ways that forfeit the future of those rendered voiceless. We see this playing out right now as Trump and the GOP relentlessly renders immigrants and indigenous persons, women and union workers, LGBTQ persons and family farmers, black lives and whole landscapes, voiceless—as though it were even possible to “make America great again” by denying regard to those pushed beyond the bounds of our concern. That MAGA path runs hell-ward.

Marty, Alex, Melman, and Gloria might be ironic evangelists, but their good news isn’t ironic at all. The path to any future worthy of our humanity is one that brings all voices into speech. That future will be complicated and messy—but it is the only future that is also human. And that makes it gospel, even if it comes by way of four animated animal evangelists.

[1] This point is made even more hauntingly—and unforgivingly—in Ursula Le Guin’s short story, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (www.utilitarianism.com/nu/omelas.pdf).

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

The Day the Levees Broke

The Day the Levees Broke
February 1, 2020
David R. Weiss

No doubt when the history of these years is recounted in a future less partisan than the present moment, it will be reckoned as uncontested tragedy and worse: the willful and cowardly betrayal of justice by those who could have done otherwise—who had more than sufficient reason to do otherwise—but chose not to.

Indeed, as we’ve seen from the earliest days of Trump’s presidency, there is a moral catastrophe playing out in the White House, and it has made unholy deals with the hyper-partisan Republicans in Congress while also sowing its vision of a future that preserves white supremacy, misogyny, xenophobia, and corporatism in its appointments to the federal judiciary.

What began as thinly veiled racist obstruction of Obama’s merely centrist vision of social progress, has, under Trump, flared into a full blown all-hands-on-deck last stand by yesterday’s white America against the coming demographic shift that will, by the sheer hue and weight of numbers, remake power relations in these United States. To anyone with moral honesty it is clear that both Trump and today’s GOP (despite lingering differences in detail) are conspiring in voter suppression, election manipulation, legislative obstruction, and judicial appointment precisely to forestall for as long as possible that day when liberty and justice truly are for all.

On Friday we took, not one small step, but one giant leap away from democracy and into the waiting arms of oligarchs and autocrats. The authoritarian impulse, full blown in countries we used to know as our nemeses but which we now race to emulate, propels our Grand Old Party toward a dystopian future, with the rest of us caught in its wake.

I had steeled myself for this moment, though I confess I’d also repeatedly fallen prey to the false hope that some thundering cavalry of better angels would rise within the breasts of those we foolishly trusted to check and balance. They chose instead to vote their unchecked fear. So “unsurprised” is a fair statement. But shaken nonetheless. The weight of this hollow judgment that mocks even the notion of judgment is heavier than any of us can reckon right now. Its toll will be exacted from our liberty and justice, from our aspirations and dreams—not least from the very air we breathe—in ways we cannot yet foresee.

Now, writ large in headlines from sea to shining sea, Senate Republicans affirm that our electoral politics can—and will, and should—be freely misshapen by those in power to preserve their power. As though the rule of law now means rule by might. For all of Trump’s unchecked inclinations, this is the day the levees broke, because this is the day when those who could have held back this onrushing chaos, choose instead to step aside and swamp democracy itself.

Make no mistake: the intent behind seeking to sabotage elections and prevent Congressional oversight is not simply to feed Trump’s insatiable narcissism. Its end game (for which Trump is ultimately little more than a tool) is to continue the far right’s assault on women’s rights—and their safety, the demonization of black and brown persons, the caging of immigrants—including children, the escalation of trans- and homophobia, fanning contempt for the poor, and the all-out deathly exploitation of the natural world—to which we are indelibly wed. Jesus would be aghast.

And on this day, with the levees so publicly broken asunder, it seems as though all manner of evil is now even more possible. And it is. And yet—

We who tremble today (and I am one of them) will be wise to remember that there are many—the poor, the queer, the black and brown, the immigrants, and many women—for whom those levees never held back the rushing waters of that complex force of white supremacy and its kindred evils. These persons, whose hopes have always been muted by the realities—the struggles—of their lives, know something about the dream of justice in their bones that others of us can only barely entertain in our minds. The only levees that have ever mattered are the ones that safeguard us all.

And they have yet to be built.

In the face of such leering evil, our next step can only be to throw our lot in with those never yet served by the levees we thought we could count on. And to build the next set of levees together. For all of us. Now.

*   *   *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on February 2, 2020. 1 Comment

Lydia: Patron Saint of Purple … and Piss

Lydia: Patron Saint of Purple … and Piss
January 27, 2020 – Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet #2
by David R. Weiss

Lydia, whose feast day is January 27, stands at the edge of the biblical story, appearing only in Acts 16:13-15. There all we learn is that she traded in purple cloth, headed a household, heard Paul preach, and then chose to be baptized and to offer Paul and his companions hospitality for a couple of days.

She’s remembered (blessed with a feast day, no less) as the first European convert to Christianity (she meets Paul in Thyatira, located in modern-day Turkey). And as a woman of means. Purple cloth was made using a costly dye extracted from sea snails. It was a status symbol for the elite, so commentators have traditionally assumed that Lydia herself was a wealthy merchant. We’ll likely never know for sure, but there are reasons to question this assumption.

Her name, Lydia, although not unknown as a Greek personal name, is unusual because it comes from a place named Lydia—and usually only slaves were named after places. Literally, her name means simply, “the woman from Lydia.” There were doubtless many slaves whose identity in the Roman world was simply that: the woman from Lydia.

Moreover, there were two sources of purple dye in the ancient world. Besides the expensive dye made from snails, another source was the root of the madder plant, a river plant common in the region of Thyatira. This plant-based dye produced a much cheaper purple cloth, a bit like the “knock-off” brands available today that imitate designer lines of clothing. But making dye from these plants was a hard and dirty process. Extracting the dye and treating the cloth involved repeatedly soaking it in vats of animal urine—and was so foul smelling that dye-workers were required to work outside the city limits … which is exactly where Paul met Lydia: in Thyatira, along the river, “outside the city gate.” (Acts 16:13)

Thyatira was known for its network of artisan guilds, including one that used slave labor to produce cheap purple cloth. Many slaves, if they managed to gain their freedom, continued to use their trade skills to eke out a living. Trained within a guild system, and united by their common skill—and their common past as slaves—they set-up up their own “houses” and traveled around the region making and trading purple cloth. They were not unlike the groups of migrant workers who move through our countryside at harvest season.

Thus, it seems likely that Lydia was a former slave, nameless beyond the region in which she was once owned, now living within a “household” of other former female slaves. She appears to have been a leader within that household of persons-at-the-edge—a household still forced to do their work outside the city gate, and still carrying on their bodies, from elbows to fingertips the smell of that marginal status that would never get washed away.

Why, then, with so much support for this image of Lydia, have we so easily embraced the other one? I suspect because (like those Bible commentators) we prefer the Lydia who’s most like us, who reinforces our notion that Christianity is for “successful” people who move at the center of things. Nevertheless, this Lydia dwells at the edge, beyond the city gate, because she reeks of urine. But that doesn’t stop Paul from sharing the good news about Jesus with her. It doesn’t prevent him from baptizing her—and her entire household. And it doesn’t deter him from accepting the offer of hospitality that she urges upon them.

In fact, the word in Acts that says she “invited” them to stay with her can carry the sense of outright pleading. And the wording of her invitation—“If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home”—suggests that she is used to having herself and her home found unworthy. It’s as though she is saying to Paul, “If this baptism you’ve just offered to us is as good as you say it is, then show me that truly we who reek of urine have now been clothed in Christ, and that beyond these waters there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female—but that we are all one in Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

Lydia, patron saint of purple … and piss, stands as a holy reminder that the church was born at the edges, beckoning to those kept outside the city gates. As we move into the era of climate crisis, it will be alongside those kept outside the city gates that we are called most fervently to build community. Alongside those least prepared and least equipped to respond. Whether living in distant countries, uprooted and moving as migrants and refugees (perhaps across our borders), or living in our own most neglected communities (often those of color). These are the households where the church must be found and formed today.

Indeed, in so many ways the comforts and conveniences we must consider relinquishing (or at least severely moderating) in order to quell the worst impacts of climate change are the same comforts and conveniences that require a social-economic structure of haves and have-nots. The fragile precarious off-balance climate that now threatens us has been bought and paid for through an economy and marketplace built on the backs of the poor for generations.

If we hope to live through climate disruption with our humanity intact, it will mean owning our common humanity more dearly than everything else we own. I’m not sure we even know how to begin the cost accounting for that project. But this mostly untold tale of Lydia[1] might offer some wisdom, by suggesting that we will need to immerse ourselves again—and ever more deeply—in the waters of baptism. There, in the gracious welcome of God, we might find the common wealth that can help us build the community that can journey together toward the only future that has room for us at all: one marked more deeply by justice than we have ever dared to think possible.

Lydia is patron saint to the church that must be. And she is inviting—begging—us to dwell with her and her household. Will we?

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Holy Feasts for a Fragile Planet is a series of occasional reflections linking Feast Days and Commemorations of the church year to the work of healing our planet. Find my 2019 collection of “Gospel in Transition” blogs and subscribe to my current writing at www.davidrweiss.com. Contact me at drw59mn(at)gmail.com. Learn how you can support me in my endeavor to do Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] On the possibility of Lydia’s low status and on the unattractive aspects of the purple dye trade, see: Lynn H. Cohick, Women in the World of Earliest Christians: illuminating ancient ways of life, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic), 188; Ivoni Richter Reimer, Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective [trans. Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1995], 98-105; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “The Pre-Industrial City in Luke-Acts: Urban Social Relations,” in Jerome Neyrey (ed.), The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991], pp. 125-49, esp. 133-37; Luise Schottroff, “Lydia: A New Quality of Power” in Let the Oppressed Go Free: Feminist Perspectives on the New Testament (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1993), 131-137; F. Scott Spencer, Acts (Readings: a new commentary) Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, 165; and F. Scott Spencer, “Women of ‘the Cloth’ in Acts: Sewing the Word” in Dancing Girls, Loose Ladies, And Women Of The Cloth: The Women In Jesus’ Life (New York: Continuum, 2004), 166-191.

Be Salty: Jesus’ Top Ten Teachings

Be Salty: A Top Ten Teachings List for Jesus     (for Kate)
January 16, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Access as a pdf

Every “Top Ten” list is a bit of a farce. In any category rich enough to merit a “top ten” list, there’s likely such an abundance of richness as to make choosing the top ten both challenging and debatable.

But maybe that’s okay. One of the great insights our Jewish siblings can offer toward Scripture is that it’s an excellent place to start an argument (or at least to spur an impassioned conversation). While many Christians see Scripture as offering a definitive last word on some topic, Jewish rabbis are adamant that Scripture is so ambiguously (divinely?) rich, that its greatest gift is often to spark conversations in which the voice of “the God who is still speaking” can be heard. That last phrase is from the United Church of Christ, but it seems to echo that same Jewish rabbinic wisdom.

Thus, without claiming that it’s definitive, here is my list of Jesus’ Top Ten Teachings. Hopefully, it will offer a bit of insight into the richness that swirls around Jesus from a progressive Christian perspective. And if it starts a few arguments, all the better! NOTE: I’ve provided a few reflection questions and a summary of biblical sources at the end of this piece.

At the heart of Jesus’ ministry is his call to discipleship. The gospels agree that there was a circle of disciples who directly responded to Jesus’ call, “Come, follow me.” But beyond this, within his own ministry, within the early church, throughout history, and into the present moment, the power of Jesus’ message is that is calls out again and again, asking us to join in God’s loving transformation of the world. So, one way to think about this list is to frame it thus: If you hear the call of Jesus in your life, and if you’re considering his request that you “Come, follow me,” this is an inkling of what it might mean to say, Yes. But also with this caveat: It’s easy to back away if all you consider is the “end game,” the culmination—the cost—of discipleship. But Jesus is inviting you on a journey—and one undertaken small step by small step, and in the good company of others. Saying Yes is choosing not only to follow Jesus, but to join the fellowship of others who’ve also chosen this life-affirming Yes.

Here’s my list. What would yours look like?

#10  God loves you. Unconditionally. Extravagantly. Now. You might say this is really #1, and I won’t argue. It is absolutely the driving force of Jesus’ ministry and message. This is the gospel. I put it at #10 because it makes all the others possible. Everything else Jesus teaches hinges on this declaration. We see this as much in his deeds as in his words. Particularly in his healings and in his table fellowship (the company he kept and the community he built over food). In both cases Jesus chose to restore wholeness to persons who were social outcasts and often seen as cursed by God. This pronounced and practiced declaration of God’s love is the absolute heart of Jesus’ teaching. If he doesn’t say this, nothing else he says matters. And, if this is true, then everything else he says spells out the difference this makes.

#9  The two great commandments: To love God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. With these words Jesus affirms and embraces the depth of his Jewish heritage, asserting that these two commandments sum up the teaching of the Torah and the passion of the prophets. But the word “commandment” falls … a bit short. Even in Exodus, when Moses receives the Decalogue—literally the “Ten Words”—on Mount Sinai, he records these ten divine utterances using verbal forms that can be translated either as imperatives (commands) or as future indicatives (promises that declare what will be). Likely nuances of both meanings ring true. The prophets rail against Israel for failing to live up to these expectations, and yet they also imagine a time—within history—when these words of command/promise are written on our hearts. Powered—liberated—by God’s unconditional, extravagant love, these two Promises sum up what life can look like.

#8  Be clear on your loyalties. Loving God with all your being doesn’t mean you can’t love others; in fact, it compels you to love them, too. But Jesus also instructs us to be clear on where our loyalties lie. This matters because loving God and neighbor is essentially and unmistakably a political agenda. Politics is just a fancy word for how any set of people (from small community to nation-state) chooses to hold and share power. God’s politics (from the Exodus through the prophets on to Jesus) are about breaking systems of oppression and placing power in service of the most vulnerable.

Jesus says quite starkly, you can’t serve two masters: if your loyalty lies with a liberating God, you have to be “all in” because God is “all in.” When Jesus is questioned about paying tribute to Caesar, his response is a master class in loyalty. After asking whose image is on the coin, he responds, “Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” It seems like a way of carving out a sphere where human rulers reign supreme, but that’s because we listen from a place that assumes, of course some things “must” belong to Caesar. But in Jewish thought all things belong to God; humans especially bear God’s image. For Jesus, obedience to any Caesar is always provisional, and whenever earthly rulers or structures act to harm humanity or creation they intrude on God’s sphere, and our loyalty is at play.

#7  Live simply, that others might simply live. The phrase is attributed to Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), and later echoed by both Gandhi and Mother Theresa, but its pedigree goes all the way back to Jesus. Perhaps most memorably in his admonition to be mindful of what we treasure because our heart will follow. He also observed that children, in their simplicity, wonder, and trust model virtues for discipleship. He cautions against letting anxiety over daily needs keep us from being present to this moment. In fact, the petition for “daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer reminds us to let enough be enough. (The words may well echo the sense of manna, which was literally “daily bread”: sufficient for a single day, but rotten if you tried to hoard it.)

The parables of the Rich Fool and the Rich Man and Lazarus both show the folly of misplaced priorities. And the rich young man, who is “this close” to the Kingdom, falters when he realizes how material things have entangled the best aspirations of his heart. In Matthew’s account Jesus prefaces his counsel to the young man to sell his possessions, give to the poor, and then follow Jesus, “If you would be perfect …” We hear it as the bar for sainthood, unrealistic in its invitation to most of us. But wait. Acts tells us the early Christians were convinced that holding all things in common was possible. Then again, they customarily addressed fellow Christians—ordinary folks like you and me—as saints. If you take #10, #9, and #8 seriously, it’s hard to see how the accumulation of personal wealth becomes a sign of success. For Jesus it appears to be the measure by which you have missed the mark.

#6  Sometimes anger is holy. True, Jesus’ message is characterized as “gospel,” as good news that reaches down into our souls and wraps us individually—but more so communally (we were after all, created for community)—in God’s extravagant love. But occasionally we see Jesus “lose it.” The most dramatic occasion is when he enters the outer courts of the Temple and sees those selling animals for sacrifice and changing money for paying Temple taxes. He responds in a holy fit of frenzy, overturning their tables and driving out the animals. His complaint—which would ring even more true of many mega churches and TV evangelists today—is that such practices aim to profit on God’s freely-offered extravagant love.

The same anger fills Jesus’ words against the Pharisees. But a word of caution is in order here. Matthew amplifies the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees as part of his gospel spin some five decades after Jesus lived. Let it suffice to say that in every religious tradition there are persons and propensities that are willing to twist divine grace into a transaction and set themselves up as gatekeepers able to pocket profit or power along the way. In fact, when Jesus sends his disciples out to preach and heal, he tells him, “You received without pay; give without pay.” That may not be a workable model in a modern economy, but when it comes to how religious traditions “communicate” God, Jesus displays a focused fury: if you are not declaring in word and deed the gracious, free, welcoming love of God, well, prepare for your tables to be overturned. And sometimes turning over tables is what it looks like to follow Jesus.

#5  Do. Or do not. There is no try. Okay, that’s Yoda (in The Empire Strikes Back), but it could’ve been Jesus. In a multitude of ways he says that faith—following Jesus as an improvisational riff on the truth of God’s love—is finally a matter of what we do, not what we say or what hear. Even in the context of his healings he notes that pronouncing forgiveness matters little if one’s stigma and isolation are not overcome. The doing is the fruit, and it reveals the health (or its lack) in the tree. This doing—this enacting good news to others—involves ready attentiveness … but without any clear signs. What ought I do? And when? Jesus intimates that if we see him in each person we encounter we’ll likely have little doubt about what to do. Though perhaps the real miracle—should we dare to imagine it—is not to meet Jesus in “the least of these,” but to meet each least person as themselves.

#4  Go ahead, be cheeky. These instructions from Jesus about turning the other cheek (followed quickly by surrendering your cloak and walking that second mile) seem to suggest that discipleship is just another way to spell “doormat.” But nothing could be further from the truth. Each instance—being struck by a back-handed slap on the left cheek, being required to offer your own coat as collateral for a “payday” loan, and being “asked” to lug a Roman soldier’s backpack for one mile—lifts up a readily recognizable occasion for oppression among Jesus’ peasant followers. Humiliation was often the ante for navigating a Roman (and at times Jewish) society distorted by power and status. Each bit of counsel offered by Jesus suggests one possible way of transforming the situation into something new by unveiling the hidden power structure and by nonviolently asserting one’s humanity in relationship to one’s adversary. When Jesus tells John’s disciples to go back and tell the Baptist what they have seen and heard, including among things, that “the poor have good news preached to them,” this is part of that preaching. It is the invitation … the urgent instruction to imagine ways—still today!—to transform oppressive dynamics so that both of those greatest commandment-promises can shine through.

#3  Look, here’s a cross … with your name on it. But. We’ve been told too often and too long that Jesus came to offer personal salvation—a guaranteed trip to heaven on the far side of death, if only we believe in him. And that belief in Jesus was set up as something that played out without reference to matters of this world—unless, of course, as the early Christians sometimes were, we were told to renounce that largely abstract conviction that Jesus is my personal savior. This isn’t the place to review all the problems with that thinking. But those first Christians were not martyred for an abstract idea—they were martyred because both they and Rome recognized that following Jesus put one at odds with following Caesar and Rome.

This is the point at which being clear about your loyalties can get costly. So we need to recognize that when Jesus talks about “taking up your cross,” he isn’t suggesting you invest your personal suffering with religious fervor, he’s specifically acknowledging that discipleship means acting out of love in situations where such actions may cost you dearly. That’s what “the cross” is about. (Which is not to say that religious faith cannot help us in facing personal suffering—it’s just not appropriate to use “cross” imagery in that regard.)

And yet. (You saw that “But” above didn’t you?) There is a mystical irony here. And by mystical I mean something more than natural but not less than real. Jesus also says it’s precisely in these moments that we gain our life—that meaning and purpose and fullness overflow. The Beatitudes stand as a counterpoint to the cross, a declaration of sacred cosmic logic—an arc that bends slowly but unfailing in the direction of justice and grace. No doubt these words are heavy, but already alongside them in the gospels we find the exhortation to be fearless, because the God who loves us extravagantly and whose love we mirror in ways that set us at odds with the world—that God accompanies us in every moment, and most especially when there’s a cross involved.

#2  I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me. This is the only “teaching” drawn from John’s gospel. That’s because virtually every biblical scholar agrees that John’s gospel (the last to be written) carries the least echo of Jesus’ historical life and shows the greatest theological interpretation done by later believers. I put this saying here because it’s often been used to harm other persons of faith, Jewish and otherwise, and it’s time to reclaim it for good. The immediate context in John’s gospel is the disciples’ anxiety about losing their bearings, so to speak, after Jesus is gone. Jesus replies by telling them, “You know plenty to keep moving forward on your own. You know me—and I am the Way …”

But, before you presume this means confessing Jesus as your personal savior and ticket to heaven, review #10 through #3 (and maybe take a peek at #1). To say that Jesus is the Way is to say, “Loves wins.” No, it isn’t to say that, it’s to DO THAT. Which is, in fact, why the earliest Christians were known as “The Way”; because of the pattern of their lived love in community. Jesus is reminding his disciples that his life—his embodied extravagant love for others—is both the presence of God streaming through him and also the sure pathway for them to follow. A sage no less than Winnie the Pooh knew that he could trust “the rumbly in his tummy” to guide him home to his honey pot. Jesus says the same: if we are lured by love for God, neighbor, and especially “the least of these,” we have found the Way and the Truth and the Life—and we are moving in the direction of God.

#1  Be compassionate … as God is compassionate. This is the bookend teaching: the culmination of Jesus’ announcement of God’s extravagant love. God’s love flows from compassion: that being moved so deeply in one’s bowels, that one dares to stand in solidarity with another—no matter the cost. No distant deity, this God—Jesus’ God—chooses to be in our midst. And every other top ten teaching is simply one facet on the surface of this gemstone, this being-in-our-midst God. Indeed, while Luke has Jesus use the word “compassion,” Matthew uses the word “perfection” in the same place. “Be perfect as God is perfect.” Really? Well, “perfect” also means to reach final/destined form, fulfilled. The fullness of God is compassion. And we, who are in the image of God, we also are destined, finally, for compassion. It is equally for us as for God the fullness of who we are. In Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Jonathan thinks he can reach heaven by flying faster and faster. The wise seagull guiding him tells him, “Heaven is not a place, nor a time. Heaven is being perfect.” And then he adds, “Perfect speed is being there.” Which sounds a lot like compassion: the art, the commitment, the act of discipleship of being there.

So—if you hear the call of Jesus in your life and consider answering his request to “Come, follow me,” with a Yes—this list gives you a small taste of what might be in store. But it’s hard to imagine ahead of time. Discipleship is an immersive communal experience. Certainly among the best, scariest, most meaningful, most mutual, riskiest, most creative, and life-affirming choices you can make. I don’t think Christianity is the only redemptive-transformative power afoot in the world. It’s simply one distinctive path of wisdom. (And one all too frequently distorted today!) Jesus asks us to be “salt of the earth.” From that vantage, perhaps Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous spiritualities, etc., even Humanism, all offer their own distinctive transformative “spice” to the world. My “top ten” list is one way to imagine what it means for followers of Jesus to “Be salty.”

If you haven’t noticed, the world could use a little salt today. I say, start shaking it out.

 

PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in public theology. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith

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David Weiss is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com). A theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, David is committed to doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. He speaks on college campuses and at church and community events. He and his wife, Margaret, make their home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their blended family includes six children and nine grandchildren. They like keeping close company with creation and their household has included dogs, cats, birds, fish, guinea pigs, hamsters, and even worms. Their home, like their life, is fairly cluttered with joy. You can reach out to him at drw59mn(at)gmail.com and read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.”

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Seeds for reflection and conversation

(Just a few questions that might help spark some inner dialogue or conversation with others in response to “Be Salty: A Top Ten Teachings List for Jesus.” Use as many or as few as you find useful.)

  1. Before we think any further about my “Top Ten” list, take a moment and consider what yours would look like. Don’t worry about coming up with exactly ten, but pause and pose this question to yourself, “If someone asked me what were the most important things Jesus taught, what would I say?” The first few things that come to mind will reveal a lot, both about how you see Jesus, but also about what you were taught about Jesus.
  2. Looking at your list, can you distinguish between teachings you listed primarily because you learned them from someone else while growing up and those you listed because you’ve poked, prodded, doubted, challenged, wrestled, and lived your way to them yourself? Is there a difference in tone or theme between those two sets of teachings? (Having studied both the Bible and Jesus across 12+ years of college, seminary, and graduate school—and having spent the last 20 years as a working theologian—my list is the result of lots of thoughtful wrestling and looks very different than it would have when I was confirmed as a teenager.) It’s also worth thinking about how your list might have changed over time—and what prompted those changes.
  3. My list rests entirely on teachings supported by the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke). While even those gospels are not biographies and reflect the unique theological spin of their authors, they’re still much more likely than John’s gospel to carry real echoes of Jesus’ actual teachings. (And my list actually draws from a lot of scholarship that tries to get back to those original teachings.) When we think about Jesus, is it important to get as close as we can to what Jesus himself taught? Or is it enough to know what the four gospel writers chose to report? What do you think drove their choices in how they portrayed Jesus? What drives yours?
  4. Thinking about my list, were there teachings I named that you were surprised to see there? Were there teachings I named that you didn’t even know Jesus taught? Were there any that you would disagree with? What would you say accounts for the differences—or similarities—between my list and your list?
  5. Does being Christian mean following Jesus’ teachings? Or does it mean something more or different than this? How many churches do you know where my Top Ten list is a good summary of what the church teaches and what the members believe and practice? Is it possible to follow Jesus’ teachings without being a Christian? (Someone might argue that Gandhi did a better job of following my Top Ten list than most Christians do—what does that say about Gandhi, about most Christians, … or about my list?)
  6. Jesus lived and taught about 2000 years ago. Even if my list captures some of the essence of what he taught, does it still matter for today? Thinking about the challenges we face—such as: climate crisis, economic inequity, racial/gender/LGBTQ injustices, political freedom, challenging medical questions, guns rights, war-terrorism, treatment of animals, artificial intelligence, and more—and the claims of churches like the United Church of Christ that “God is still speaking,” do the teachings on my list offer usable guidance for today? How do such teachings relate to a God who is still speaking?
  7. What did you learn, or what do you see more clearly about Jesus—or about yourself—after reflecting on my Top Ten list and these questions?

 

A note on sources

I’m not keen on “proof-texting” (the notion that a some set of specific verses can prove a point); no surprise there, given my introduction to the Top Ten list. Nonetheless, all of the teachings I name do have roots in Jesus’ life as portrayed in the gospels. For ease of reading, I chose not to clutter the list itself with a set of citations, but here’s a sense of the passages that support each theme on the list.

10 God loves you. Unconditionally. Extravagantly. Now. Saint Francis famously told his followers, “Go, preach the gospel. Use words as needed.” His point was that the radical good news brought by Jesus was more deed than declaration. If you follow the action in the gospels this theme becomes unmistakably clear, not so much as a specific verbal declaration, but as emblematic of his lived ministry as a whole. One place it finds clear verbal expression is in the parable of the Prodigal Son—where it’s really the father who is prodigal (Lk 15:11-32).

9 The greatest commandments: To love God with all your being, and to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mk 12:29-31 | Mt 22:37-40 | Lk 10:25-28); on a law/teaching/promise written on our hearts (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:31-34; Ez. 36: 24-28; 2 Cor. 3:3).

8 Be clear on your loyalties. On not serving two masters (Mt 6:24 | Lk 16:13); on paying tribute to Caesar (Mk 12:13-17 | Mt 22:15-22 | Lk 20:20-26).

7 Live simply, that others might simply live. On treasures and hearts (Mt 6:21 | Lk 12:34); on children and the kingdom of God (Mk 10:14-15 | Mt 19:14-15 | Lk 18:16-17; also Mk 9:36-37 | Mt 18:1-4 | Lk 9:47-48); on daily bread (Mt 6:11 | Lk 11:3); the parables of Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21) and Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31); the rich young ruler (Mk 10:17-22 | Mt 19:16-23 | Lk 18:18-24); on holding all material goods in common (Acts 2:42-47).

6 Sometimes anger is holy. No dens of thieves and no vipers. Clearing the Temple (Mk 11:15-17 | Mt 21:10-16 | Lk 19:45-46); on woe to Pharisees (Lk 11:42-43; also Mk 12:37-40 | Mt 23:1-36 | Lk 45-47); on offering God’s grace … freely (Mt 10:8).

5 Do. Or do not. There is no try. What we do matters more than what we hear or say (Mt 7:24-27 | Lk 6:47-49; also Mt 21:28-32); to say ‘I forgive’ matters little if we don’t do what we can to make others whole (Mk 2:1-12 | Mt 9:1-8 | Lk 5:17-26); knowing by fruit (Mt 7:16-18 | Lk 6:43-46; Mt 12: 33-35); on not waiting for a sign—it’s not coming (Mt 12:38-42 | Lk 11:29-32; also Mt 16:4 | Mt 12:38 | Mk 8:12 | Lk 11:29); watch, yes, (Lk 12:35-38) but act now—for the least of these (Mt 25:31-39).

4 Go ahead, be cheeky. On turning the cheek (Matt. 5:38-48 | Luke 6:27-35); that the poor hear good news (Mt 11:5 | Lk7:22).

3 There’s a cross with your name on it. But. Picking up a cross … losing life … finding it (Mt 10:38-39 | Lk 14:27-28; also Mk 8:34-37 | Mt 16:24-26 | Lk 9:23-25); and yet the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12 | Lk 6:20-23); on trials for disciples (Mk 13:9-13 | Mt 10:17-25 | Lk 21:12-19); on fearless confession (Mt 10:26-32 | Lk 12:2-8)

2 I am the Way … no one comes to the Father except by me. (Jn 14:5-6); early Christians as the Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9,23; 22:4; 24:14,22); on “the least of these” as “the way” to Jesus (Mt 25:31-39)

1 Be compassionate … as God is compassionate. (k 6:35) That is, be willing to suffer with others for their well-being. This is the essence of God’s nature. In fact, it’s the “perfection” of God. (Mt 5:48).

Lastly, on the overarching call to “be salty” (Mt 5:13).

 

Ash Wednesday Litany: Ash & Oil

A Litany for a Season of Ash and Oil – Overview

Stanley Hauerwas wrote that one of the church’s fundamental tasks is to create people capable of experiencing what is radically new, people “capable of being challenged by the story of Jesus and God’s kingdom.” (The Peaceable Kingdom, 1983, p. 108). Liturgy plays a central role in that task (at least when it is driven by the passion and vision of Jesus’ ministry). In the face of our climate crisis, liturgy must help us not only to hear the good news, but also to hear the bad news, because only as we face the depth of our present crisis can we respond authentically to this moment.

I would love to see this litany used in many worship settings. With Ash Wednesday still six weeks off (Feb. 26), there is plenty of time to share it with the worship planner at your church — please do! It is available as a Word document or as a PDF file.

This Call to Worship / Litany supports the United Church of Christ (UCC) Council on Climate Justice “Karios Call to Action (www.ucc.org/a_kairos_call_to_action). It draws on images from both the Kairos Call and the lectionary texts, placing Ash Wednesday within the context of Climate Crisis—and vice versa.

Note that while one version makes explicit reference to the UCC “Kairos Call to Action,” I’ve also prepared an ecumenical version with alternate opening words for the Leader making the litany appropriate for use in any Christian church. (Both versions are included in the Word doc and PDF file.)

The images drawn from Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Isaiah 58:1-12; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 are from the assigned lectionary readings for Ash Wednesday, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary.

Abraham uses “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27) to express his humble human state. It serves the same purpose in the litany. “Dust” also occurs in the words of curse spoken in the fall story (Genesis 3:19)—but, though many might assume so, we were not “cursed” to be dust. It seems imperative today that we see our finitude—the fact that we die and return to dust—as falling within God’s good intentions rather than being due to some primal sin. Indeed, our habit of seeing ourselves separate from creation—now amplified by industry, technology, and ad-stoked consumption—is a primary driver of both climate crisis and social inequality.

The Season of Oil image aims to directly and unmistakably highlight this as a kairos moment. If we act well in kairos time, we seize it for promise rather than for peril. In these cases, kairos moments become messianic moments, moments in which humans place themselves in service as ones chosen by God. Such moments might rightly be seen as anointed, oiled.

Frequently, ashes are blended with oil for marking worshippers foreheads, so many Ash Wednesday services already include both ash and oil (although the oil is rarely mentioned). If the oil is explicitly acknowledged, one might choose to employ a single anointing. However, given the dire urgency of the moment, one could with good liturgical-theological reason choose to employ a double-marking (at two stations) to emphasize the additional depth of this as a kairos moment.

If done as ashes blended with oil, these or similar words (which shift the focus slightly from personal penitence to global solidarity) might be used:

“Remember that you marked by both ash and oil—at one with all the Earth, and bearer of God’s image.”

If done as two separate markings, these or similar words might be used:

“Remember that you are ash and dust—at one with all the Earth.”

“Know that you are marked by oil to bear God’s image and hope in this moment.”

 

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UCC Version

A Litany for a Season of Ash and Oil

Ldr: As we begin our Lenten journey this year, we join with fellow Christians who have walked this season before us for over a thousand years. This 2020 Lenten journey moves once again through that same season—reminding us of our own mortality and our complicity in the world’s brokenness. It is a Season of Ash.

But this 2020 Lenten journey is also unlike earlier Lenten seasons. Recently our national UCC Council on Climate Justice declared this present moment a kairos moment, using a biblical word for time that indicates time that it is overfull with both peril and promise. Think of it as a God-charged moment, one anointed with possibility for persons of faith. The Council has called on churches, beginning in 2020, to develop ten-year plans for mobilization responding to the intertwined brokenness seen in our worsening climate crisis and deepening social inequality. So this is also a Season of Oil.

Please join me in our opening litany.

Ldr: We confess that, like Abraham and Sarah, we are but dust and ashes. (Genesis 18:27)

All: And yet we are grateful to be dust that breathes, ashes that live, even though our days are numbered.

Ldr: As we enter Lent we hear the trumpet sounding its alarm, announcing the day of the Lord and calling us to rend our hearts. (Joel 2:1,13)

All: In this season of lengthening days, let us return at length to the One who waits for us, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:13)

Ldr: In the prophet Isaiah we hear the God who is still speaking ask, Is not this the fast I choose? To undo injustice, to break oppression, and to recognize all who are in need as your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

All: And we acknowledge that we are entangled, both by personal impulses and by societal forces that invite us to disregard the needs of the world today.

Ldr: We hear the cries of the poor and the migrant, of family farmers and communities of color, even as the rhetoric around us seeks to pit one child of God against another.

All: But now, O Loving Creator of all that is, remind us that it is through deeds of compassion and in communities of love that light breaks forth like the dawn. (Isaiah 58:8)

Ldr: We hear—in the voices of scientists, in the screams of wildfires and extreme weather, and in the quieter anguish of dying animals and ecosystems—the pleading cry of a planet whose peril is more real today than at any moment since humans have walked the Earth.

All: And we, who are but dust and ashes—we are also ones made in your image. And perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

Ldr: O Liberating God, break the spell that tells us we are separate from the Earth. Teach us the truth that by grace you created us out of dust and ashes. And anoint us in this kairos moment to be your church.

All: Let us be marked by ash—made one, like Jesus, with all the precarious Earth. And anointed by oil—to act, alongside Jesus, with urgency and compassion for our human siblings and the whole of creation.

Ldr: During this Season of Ash and Oil, may we make humility, solidarity, and action for justice the treasure we store up. For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. (Mt. 6:21)

All: AMEN.

 

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Ecumenical version

A Litany for a Season of Ash and Oil

Ldr: As we begin our Lenten journey this year, we join with fellow Christians who have walked this season before us for over a thousand years. This 2020 Lenten journey moves once again through that same season—reminding us of our own mortality and of our complicity in the world’s brokenness. It is a Season of Ash.

But this 2020 Lenten journey is also unlike earlier Lenten seasons. Because of the intertwined brokenness seen in our worsening climate crisis and deepening social inequality, some have suggested this present moment is a kairos moment, using a biblical word for time that indicates time that it is overfull with both peril and promise. Think of it as a God-charged moment, one anointed with possibility for persons of faith. So this is also a Season of Oil.

Please join me in our opening litany.

Ldr: We confess that, like Abraham and Sarah, we are but dust and ashes. (Genesis 18:27)

All: And yet we are grateful to be dust that breathes, ashes that live, even though our days are numbered.

Ldr: As we enter Lent we hear the trumpet sounding its alarm, announcing the day of the Lord and calling us to rend our hearts. (Joel 2:1,13)

All: In this season of lengthening days, let us return at length to the One who waits for us, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. (Joel 2:13)

Ldr: In the prophet Isaiah we hear the God who is still speaking ask, Is not this the fast I choose? To undo injustice, to break oppression, and to recognize all who are in need as your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

All: And we acknowledge that we are entangled, both by personal impulses and by societal forces that invite us to disregard the needs of the world today.

Ldr: We hear the cries of the poor and the migrant, of family farmers and communities of color, even as the rhetoric around us seeks to pit one child of God against another.

All: But now, O Loving Creator of all that is, remind us that it is through deeds of compassion and in communities of love that light breaks forth like the dawn. (Isaiah 58:8)

Ldr: We hear—in the voices of scientists, in the screams of wildfires and extreme weather, and in the quieter anguish of dying animals and ecosystems—the pleading cry of a planet whose peril is more real today than at any moment since humans have walked the Earth.

All: And we, who are but dust and ashes—we are also ones made in your image. And perhaps we were born for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

Ldr: O Liberating God, break the spell that tells us we are separate from the Earth. Teach us the truth that by grace you created us out of dust and ashes. And anoint us in this kairos moment to be your church.

All: Let us be marked by ash—made one, like Jesus, with all the precarious Earth. And anointed by oil—to act, alongside Jesus, with urgency and compassion for our human siblings and the whole of creation.

Ldr: During this Season of Ash and Oil, may we make humility, solidarity, and action for justice the treasure we store up. For where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. (Mt. 6:21)

All: AMEN.

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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet, and hymnist, doing “public theology” around issues of climate, creation, sexuality, diversity, and peace. Find his 2019 collection of fifty-two “Gospel in Transition” essays on Faith and Climate and subscribe to his blog at www.davidrweiss.com, where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Learn how you can support him in doing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith. David is the author of When God Was a Little Girl, a playfully profound and slyly subversive children’s picture book (2013, www.WhenGodWasaLittleGirl.com) as well as To the Tune of a Welcoming God: Lyrical reflections on sexuality, spirituality and the wideness of God’s welcome (2008, http://www.tothetune.com).