Easter Justice and a thirst for righteousness

 

One of last things Jesus said before he died on the cross was, “I thirst.”  It is hard to imagine the very Savior who promised a woman by the well (John 4) everlasting water being thirsty, but he was.  Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to this illusive Easter text.

We live in a desolate and parched time.  The government is gridlocked; ISIS is sweeping across Africa and the Middle East; a precarious presidential election has nearly nose-dived into the gutter.  Black lives matter; gay and lesbian youth are committing suicides at an unprecedented rate due to bullying and discrimination.  Income inequality is at its greatest since the Great Depression.  Businesses and churches are surviving against all odds.

I can’t understand why Jesus thirsted, but I know why I thirst.  I thirst because we still have to live in a world in which Jesus’ Kingdom-vision, one of peace, liberation, redemption, and embrace has yet to be realized.

Easter happened.  Jesus arose from the grave.  He promised eternal life to those who believe; but, we are still living in the times between Good Friday and silent Saturday of our own souls.  We haven’t experienced resurrection with our Savior yet.  We stand, instead, between death and Jesus’ Second Coming.

Until Jesus comes with a final trumpet sound to inaugurate once and for all God’s reign on heaven and earth, I thirst.

I guess that when Jesus said “I thirst,” he was referring to Psalm 69.  At least that’s what the notes in my Study Bible say. But what if Jesus had Psalm 42 in mind instead?

As a deer longs for flowing water, so my souls longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night” (v. 1-3).

What if Jesus said “I thirst” because he wants us to remember his Sermon on the Mount?   While we mourn at the cross, we may recall that Jesus’ Sermon mandated that we still have work to do, even in the midst of our own thirst: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Righteousness is a biblical term that means “to be in right relationship with,” and it is a benchmark of God’s activity on earth.  Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, God’s desire was to reconcile that ruptured relationship, to put things right.

Jesus must have thirsted for righteousness because his death was the next step in this process of reconciliation.

I too thirst for righteousness that includes advocating for justice and mercy and kindness in a world very much in need of repairing.

I thirst for righteousness because I want to fight for what’s right in the world in order to see balanced budgets, terrorism abated, peaceful conclusions to war, and a more equitable tax code and quality of life for all lives.

Before he was crucified, Jesus told parables and healed the sick and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He said that the reign of God–the very kingdom of God–had come to earth and was in our midst.

This reign was more than a fancy idea or personal wish; the reign drew heaven’s goal and earth’s future closer together so that God’s will would be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Although I thirst still, I am thankful that Jesus is indeed the Everlasting Water who gives us a chance to spread God’s righteousness even in the least expected places, like at the local halfway house or in Congress.

I thirst, but it is God who nourishes us with hope that one day even broken legislatures and warring enemies will eventually bow to His lordship.

Giving Thanks means Giving to Others with Divine Generosity

I’m sure most of my readers know by now that I am a movie nut.  My daughter takes after me; so, now that she is almost eight years old, I thought it appropriate that we watch one of my favorite childhood movies together, “The Neverending Story.”

“The Neverending Story” is about a magical kingdom that is quickly deteriorating.  The empress of the Kingdom chooses a child-warrior, Atreyu, to save the kingdom.  He goes on a quest and finds an old sage who tells him that only the Southern Oracle can reveal how to save the kingdom.

Getting to the Southern Oracle is the hard part: Atreyu must pass through two gates, tests of sorts.  The second gate appears to be mundane:  It’s a magic mirror.  This mirror shows a person for who he or she really is.  Many who have looked into the mirror run away screaming mad at what they saw.

For many of us, any mirror is a challenge.  We don’t spend too much time in front of them, but when we do, the image that often confronts us may show how anxious, uncertain, or insecure we are.  We usually only see that which we lack, be it good looks or lack of wealth (“I have nothing nice to wear!”).

People can also act as mirrors to us.  If we are people filled with hate, we will only see hate in others.  If we can’t forgive ourselves, it is hard to forgive others.  If we are filled with fear, we only see others as threats.  When we only see what we lack, then we can only focus on what others lack; and that is pretty frightening indeed.

Luke 9:10-17 tells a story about the time when Jesus and his disciples confront a crowd of 5,000 people.  Jesus and his disciples were ministering all day, and they were trying to find solace in the quiet town of Bethsaida.   The crowds, those who hungered for God’s Word and healing, found Jesus and the disciples.

Interesting thing about that crowd: The masses acted as a mirror for Jesus and his followers.  Scripture tells us that Jesus gladly welcomed the crowds and ministered to them without hesitation.  When he looked into the crowd, all he could see was God’s presence and the opportunity to have divine interactions with those who needed him most.

When the disciples saw the crowd, they only saw their lack of resources and scarcity.  They asked Jesus to send the crowds away.  “We have no food,” the disciples said, “And we can’t feed them because we are in a deserted place.”

The disciples had food, but from their perspective they didn’t have enough.  Jesus, however, peered into that mirror and only saw God’s abundance, and he saw enough food to go around.

Instead of looking around and seeing desert, Jesus “looked up to heaven and blessed the bread.”  Then, Jesus had the disciples feed the crowd.  Scripture tells us that the masses were not only “filled,” but had left-overs as well.

In an economy of scarcity, we usually fail to see all that God has given us.  We get so busy focusing on our lack, we fail to give thanks for what we have.  We look around at others and see what they have and what we want, or perhaps we peer into our own situation and only see the dry landscape of a barren desert.

When we trust that God is a God of abundance and of the rich harvest (“I am the bread of life,” Jesus tells us in John 6), then we may begin to look in the mirror and see Christ starring back at us.  When we look in the mirror and see Christ, then when we look at others we will see the Christ in them too.  We can welcome others and nourish them with resources that we no longer hesitate to share.

(This is based on the sermon delivered at the community Thanksgiving service at Epiphany Lutheran on November 22.  The service highlighted Family Promise, a local non-profit which hosted its first set of homeless families at Rockdale Baptist Church on November 13.)

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) General Assembly reveals larger, post-denominational trends (Part 1)

This past week I spent some time in Charolotte, NC, attending the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly–the annual meeting of a denominational “fellowship” made up of some 1,900 churches.  It is truly a blessing to be amongst fellow brothers and sisters who share a common identity and values, to meet with friends old and new, and to network with other clergy.

I also had time to notice that the overall feel of the General Assembly reflected some larger trends, both positive and negative, facing North American denominations as a whole.  This blog is the first in a three-part series outlining my reflections and learnings from the CBF meeting:

Positive Trend 1: Many denominations are being intentional about raising up a new generation of ministers that are proud of their heritage and core values.  The CBF, specifically, has taken explicit steps to include young leaders in every aspect of the denomination, from upper-level staff positions to board positions.  This insures communication across generational lines and inclusive ministry throughout this brand of Baptist’s hierarchy.  It also reinforces good, old-fashioned Baptist identity by giving the next generation a stake in the denomination’s future.

For example, this morning I attended a breakfast for pastors that are participating in the Collegiate Congregational Internship Program.

This program, funded by a Lily Endowment Grant, enables the CBF to place and pay college students and first-year seminarians in a variety of ministry positions in participating congregations.     This year is the first in the three-year program, and over 90 interns were placed in congregations throughout the nation, from California to Virginia, in the summer months.

This program intends to train students for ministry and nurture potential calls to ministry.  It also gives them hands-on training in local church settings, while exposing students to the work of the church, be it deacon ministries or lay leadership councils.

Churches, strapped for resources, benefit by having the interns as well as the stipend to broaden their ministry outreach.

I speak from personal experience.  At Trinity Baptist Church, we placed an intern as the Minister of Youth and Missions.  The intern, Matt, and is getting invaluable experience that coincides with his classroom, seminary training at Mercer University.

The CBF’s intentional shift towards including young leaders in key positions is continuing to pay off.   While other denominations navigate through the uncertain terrain of generational conflicts and leadership crises, the CBF has diversified its leadership in both age and ethnic make-up.

Positive Trend 2: Denominations are becoming holistic in their approach to ministry.

Initially, many denominational bodies started out as missionary-sending boards that did little in terms of public advocacy and social transformation.  After all, Baptists have prided themselves on protecting the thin line of separation between church and state.

As these same denominations face economic and enthusiam shortfalls, however, Baptists had to expand missions into the larger field of public policy and advocacy.  Not only do Baptists want to feed the poor, they want to insure that the poor live in a just society that helps to eliminate poverty altogether.

Baptists see that they must meet a broader set of needs in a broken world.  The theme for this year’s CBF assembly, for instance, focused on missions and social justice; workshops and seminars informed and trained participants in a variety of topics that are facing our society, from human sex trafficking to disaster relief efforts.

The first seminar delivered at the CBF, facilitated by Alan Roxbrough, inspired churches to be transformative agents in their local communities.

I attended a workshop today that informed the audience on ways local churches can take part in social justice ministry and public advocacy.  The seminar allowed both the facilitators and the audience to bear witness as to how their churches are ministering to and fighting on behalf of the most marginalized people groups in our society.

Devita Parnell, Congregational Resource Specialist for the CBF, explained the need to include a wider focus in ministry that includes social justice.    Churches are good at helping the poor and broken in society much like the Good Samaritan helped the hurt traveler on the road to Jerusalem, she stated, But churches are not good at taking intentional steps to make the road from Samaria to Jerusalem safer for all pilgrims.

We bear witness to the world in order to lead people to the love and forgiveness and lordship of Christ.  We also bear witness by fighting on the behalf of those who are weak and disenfranchised in society.   This is what it means to engage in holistic missions.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia is senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.  Visit Trinity’s website at www.trinityconyers.org.