Look not unto Jesus

JesusBy Joe LaGuardia

Several months after Kristina and I moved to Georgia, I was throwing trash away in our apartment complex dumpster when I spotted a painting of the Last Supper of Christ.  Unlike the Da Vinci paintings I had seen before, this one was different: all of the disciples and Jesus were people of color.

I took the painting home and showed my wife, wiped off the dust that had collected on the canvas, and put it in my home office.

When we moved to Georgia, we were astounded at how many Baptist churches were segregated between black and white congregations–we came from a multicultural, diverse church.

That day, I realized that some churches segregated Jesus too.

I can’t blame some communities for portraying Jesus as black (or Latino).  A white Jesus, inspired by European artists, is just as mythic.  Jesus was probably a stereotypical Mediterranean with olive-skinned complexion, dark hair, dark eyes, and skin tanned and cracked by the harsh middle eastern sun.

And who would want a white Jesus in a predominantly African-American place of worship in the first place, a constant reminder of the prevailing white hegemony of the last three centuries of American history?

In fact, it was white theologians in the eighteenth century, not black ones, who questioned whether there were two Adams–one for white people, and one for people of color–in which only one Adam (I’ll let you guess which one) begot the true human race.  So having a white or black Jesus is a significant symbolic choice, especially after the Black Liberation Theology movement in the 1960s.

A few weeks ago, I preached on Luke 14 at church.  It recalls the story when Jesus went to a Pharisee’s house for dinner and told the guests that if they ever threw another dinner party, to invite not the righteous and healthy folks, but the blind, crippled, poor, and beggars.

When I was praying about this story, my mind focused on Christ as honored guest at this dinner party.  I tried to picture Jesus sitting there eating, talking, challenging, and storytelling, because I really wanted to get into the drama of the whole thing.

I was surprised when I reflected not on the Jesus I am used to envisioning in my prayers, but Black Jesus in that painting from so long ago.  Distracted for a minute, I soon realized Jesus did not want me to look at him at all.  He wanted me to look around, beyond the table to the very people Jesus described as on the margins of society, those who are poor, broken, and outcast.

We look to Jesus for many things, and we see him many different ways.  We love Jesus and want more of him in our prayer life and in the daily journey of faith.  But sometimes our fixation with Jesus overwhelms our outreach to those for whom Jesus cared most.  After all, he said that when we help those in need, it is as if we are helping him.

Where do we find Jesus but in the face of the poor, in the disfigurement of the crippled, and in the wounds of the brokenhearted?  In our suffering neighbor, the Lord comes to us as the suffering servant, a figure upon the cross who sought to heal and restore those who bear their own crosses.

Look at Jesus, but don’t look at him too long.  Look around.  Next time you throw a party, invite those who cannot repay you and who will become Jesus to you.  When we serve the least of these, we serve Christ himself.

God’s Invitation to the Table

banqBy Emily Holladay

“One day, Jesus said to a host who had him over for dinner, ‘When you throw a party, don’t invite your friends  or the well-to-do.  They can repay you, so what’s the fun of that?

Rather, invite those who can’t pay you back, people that others overlook: the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.    Once you share in their company, and they share in yours, you will be blessed” (Luke 14:12-14).

Hey, you. Yeah, you. You know who I’m talking to. You, the one standing in the corner over there. Do you know that you’ve been invited to this party?

Just like that guy in his cool hipster skinny jeans and flannel shirt chatting up the tall, beautiful girl with perfect brown, layered, flowing hair wearing the dress that falls along her thin figure accentuating all her barely visible, but perfectly shaped curves.

You were invited, just like the old man at the head of the table wearing his seersucker pants, white polo, and state championship ring (probably from some pretentious sport he played in high school).

Just like the clean shaven, medium height, middle-aged man without the slightest trace of balding in his thick black hair, which is smeared with gel creating the same picturesque “do” sported by the likes of Rob Lowe and Alec Baldwin. That man in the fancy looking suit that he clearly bought at JC Penney because he wanted to look like he could afford the latest JosABank line item. You see him over there schmoozing the host, hoping for a better seat at the table… more invites to the club… maybe even a ticket to the next big show the host’s company is sponsoring?

Yeah, I know you see him. But guess what? He got the same invitation you did. The same 5X7 envelope with the “I Love Lucy” postage stamp in the upper right corner and small, chicken-scratch handwriting front and center.

Look around. All the people you’re “sizing up?” The ones you think are better than you, prettier than you, or simply have more right to be here than you do? They all got the same piece of glossy paper with the words, “You’re invited!” in big, bold letters across the top.

Just like you, most of them (with the exception of that hipster guy who wears the same outfit every day) spent hours deciding what they would wear and how they would fix their hair. Like you, many of them wondered if they would know anyone at the party, what they would talk about, and how they would fit in.

The difference?

You’re in the corner thinking about how miserable you are. You’re looking around at all of them, mystified that you were ever invited to such an affair. And you’re not giving any of “them” a chance because you won’t give yourself a chance.

I dare you.

I dare you to believe that you are enough, even with all your flaws – your nose that feels too big for your face, your hair that “makes your face look fat,” and all the other things that get in the way of seeing your own worth. I dare you to look at yourself and claim your personhood. Declare yourself valuable.

I dare you to look at yourself – the way you’re looking at all the other people in this room – like you are meant to be here.

Because you are! Your presence here is intentional. Your host likes you. Your host values your company. And your host thinks you have something special to offer the community gathered at her house today.

Most importantly, you are wanted here. You. And the hipster dude. And that girl who’s too attractive for her own good. And the state champion guy. And the greasy-haired Rob Lowe look-alike. All of you were meant to be in this room together. All of you, without exception.

So, take a few steps forward… and a few more… Come out of the corner and join the party! You might find your best friend among this vastly growing group of characters. Or you might find that the girl whose petite curves drove you to insane jealousy needs your compassionate and loving presence to help her navigate the world of people who can’t see past her looks.

Join the party! You may find that the host is ecstatic to welcome you into her community of friends and loved ones.

Join the party! You may just find that you belong here.

Being a People of Biblical Vision (part 2/4)

This is the second sermon in a five-part series at Trinity Baptist Church entitled, “A People of Vision.”

“Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago…

You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.

On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.”  (Isaiah 25:1, 4, 6)

“Blessed are those who are invited to the supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9)

I.

We have been talking about vision: God’s vision–a picture or image–of the future.  For us.  For our church.

We believe that God has a vision for each one of us and for our church because God is in the revelation business.  We serve a “self-disclosing” God who knows us intimately.

One of the ways God reveals Himself is through the Bible, the inspired Word of God. Too often, the Bible is used as a weapon of the faith–a sword with which to thump, something to throw at people who are living in sin.

The Bible has been used to divide churches.  The Bible does say that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, to separate bone and marrow, but that does not mean it is to be used to divide God’s people.

Nor should we reduce the Bible to a set of absolutes, rules, and principles.  The Bible is not simply a rule book; nor is it something that outlines a bunch of “dos and don’ts.”

II.

The Bible is inspired.  It is authoritative.  Our church’s constitution affirms that the Bible is to be the “basis of all our beliefs.”  Our earliest Baptist forefathers made the Bible a central aspect (and in some cases the foundation) of our faith.  As early as 1654, we have a confession that declares that Scripture must “therefore be the rule of thy faith and practice.”*

As early as the mid-1600s, Baptists set out to define how we are to interpret the scriptures.  In that day, they spoke out against the Quakers, who emphasized illumination, or the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit.  Baptists, like Thomas Collier, argued that Christians must balance illumination by the Holy Spirit with the “letter” of scripture (revelation).  To emphasize one at the expense of the other is dangerous and in many cases unreliable.

We, therefore, take this Book to be authoritative, and we echo our Baptist ancestors when we confess that every believer has the right to read and interpret the scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

III.

But that brings us back to the “how” of the Bible’s authority, especially when it comes to each church’s calling in God.    For Trinity, we have always seen the Bible as the story of God’s interaction with His creation–the Biblical story is one not made up of abstract principles, but of relationships.

It is within God’s relationship with all creation that God casts a vision for all of creation.  God paints a picture for us in Scripture of what our future holds.

IV.

We catch a glimpse of that vision in the book of Isaiah.  Isaiah’s ministry came about during a turbulent time in Judah’s (the southern kingdom of Israel) history.  King Asa was trying to hold a fragile nation together while warding off attacks from both the Israel kingdom and the Assyrians. 

Isaiah reminded King Asa that God was in the mix, and he reminded Asa that God expected faithfulness in the face of trails and tribulations: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all,” Isaiah warned in 7:9.

But God’s presence was also a promise.  Only five verses later (7:14), Isaiah promised Asa that God will be Emmanuel, “God with us,” and will save His people from certain destruction.

It is within this political milieu, when people are at their most vulnerable and unable to see the forest from the individuals trees, that God paints a picture of Israel’s future.

In Isaiah 25, God does just that.  The vision that God casts has certain elements.  First, God has plans for Israel that were formed early on in humanity’s history (v. 1): “things planned long ago.”

Second, God’s vision is universal and inclusive.  In it, Isaiah imagined Zion as a place where all people from every tribe and nation will gather around a great banquet table.  Those who are on the margins will have a special place in this banquet.

The vision is like that found in Psalm 23: “You set a table before my enemies; my cup overflows.”

While the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, and lame feast on God’s nourishing Word of Life, God will “swallow up death” in the final days.

V.

The image and vision of a great feast is found throughout Scripture.  It signifies the inclusive Good News in which everyone can find a place at God’s table.

Jesus embodied this very vision in his ministry.  For him, feasting with “tax collectors and sinners” was God’s way of bringing that vision to fruition.  In Luke 14:12-24, Jesus tells his followers to do the same; and, like God, invite the people who have no belonging in the greater society.

In Luke 14, Jesus tells a host to avoid inviting the rich and people-who-have-it-all-together.  They have no need of a feast, no need of God’s presence.  Jesus tells him to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind instead.

When this type of feast takes place with these types of folks, God’s vision breaks into creation here and now.

Jesus takes that vision further.  Not only does he feast with tax collectors and sinners, he also puts them in places of leadership.  Judas the Betrayer was treasurer.   Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the Doubter were disciples.  Mary the Prostitute was by Jesus’ side, even unto death.  Jesus told Peter, the very scoundrel who betrayed Jesus and whom Jesus called “satan,” that it was upon him that Jesus will build his church.

Imagine that?  God’s vision is one that is so radical, even sinners have a seat at the table and a place in the ministry of God’s kingdom.   The very people who are broken and in most need of God’s salvation are blessed, especially when they find themselves eating and serving with a “Lamb” who was broken on their behalf.

VI.

Since its inception in 1984, Trinity Baptist Church has taken on this type of biblical vision in its ministry to all people.  Our founding pastor embodied this type of vision when he initiated Bible studies at the local bar.  Two ex-drug users heeded this vision when they established our Narcotics Anonymous ministry, which still meets to this day every Thursday night.

And we have lived into this vision when we have included all kinds of people in our ministries, people not too dissimilar from the folks who followed Jesus.

These have been people who curse like sailors and meet Jesus in the throes of addiction and brokenness.  These have been people who are poor and are on the margins of society.  These have been people not welcomed in a large segment of our society because they didn’t “play the part of the good Christian.”

We at Trinity Baptist do declare that God’s Word is authoritative, but we also declare that God’s biblical–biblical–vision for our church is not always the most popular.

I must admit that we may fly under the radar in Baptist life in many aspects of our ministry.  Ours is too small of a church to be noticed by any of the big Baptist conventions in our area.  Yet, I can’t help but to say that our core values–as motivated and inspired by this type of reading of Scripture–may bring us critical attention one of these days.

I am not saying this to be controversial.  Nor do I need to define any particular position on any particular social or cultural issue–we are too theological diverse for that.

But I am confident that when we minister faithfully under our divine mandate as a church, serving, welcoming, and including the people whom we invite to the table and include in our circles of leadership, we will be doing God’s will rather than the will of any bureaucracy, creed, or the whimsical will of man.

VII.

In 1677, at the Second London Conference of Baptists, the messengers agreed that people can get too wrapped up in their emotions when interpreting Scripture.  They were afraid that relying on illumination too much, like the Quakers, may make human doctrine too subjective–in their words, humankind is too arbitrary, “tost too and fro” like a boat in a windstorm, to set boundaries that limit people’s experience of God.

We must balance the authority of God’s Word with the ongoing illumination that the Holy Spirit provides, and–like the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15–discern (as a community) how God still speaks to us today.

For Trinity Baptist Church, God’s biblical vision is one that defines the nature and the authority of our ministry.  It is a vision that includes a great banquet feast–a place where everyone has a seat.

Source:

H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), pp. 70-73.