Keeping Religion Out of Politics

It is important to speak,
Because in my Biblical bag of topics,
There are stories about Sarah and Abraham,
Not James Dobson and Franklin Graham.

When Joseph saved Egypt from famine,
Religion became Political,
When God sent Moses to Pharaoh,
Religion became Political,
When God told Moses to receive these laws,
Religion became Political,
When Job asked God why,
Religion became Political,
When Elijah picked a fight with Jezebel,
Religion became Political,
When Isaiah said “Here I Am”,
Religion became Political,
When King David murdered Uriah,
Religion became Political,
When Mary sang the Magnificat,
Religion became Political,
When Herod killed innocent children,
Religion became Political,
When Jesus said it would be hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom,
Religion became Political.
When Pilate interrogated Jesus,
Religion became Political.
When Jesus questioned God’s intentions in the Garden of Gethsemane,
Religion became Political.
When Constantine made the Church a part of the Government,
Religion became Political.
When Henry decided he wanted divorce after divorce,
Religion became Political.
When the Methodists became Methodism,
Religion became Political.

–Richard Bryant

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When You Mock Victims, You Mock Jesus

When you mock a victim of abuse, you mock Jesus.
When you laugh at the victim of oppression, you laugh at Jesus.
When you whip up a crowd to howl at a victim, you recreate the pain of Good Friday.
When you intentionally hurt someone who is already harmed, you hurt Jesus.
Harnassed evil is ugly and mean,
Jesus weeps.

And I bet all of them standing there,
every last one,
goes to a church,
maybe three times a week,
they call themselves Christian,
and while they laughed,
hoot’d and holler’d
Jesus still weeps.

–Richard Bryant

Jesus H. Christ – What is Jesus’ Middle Name?

Happiness.
Heckled.
Hold on a minute.
Hahaha. Jesus laughed.
Heal at a moment’s notice.
Help someone out.
Hush, I’m about to become parabolic.
Hike, never. Walk always.
How about looking after women and children?
Humility is never overrated.
Hell yes, I love you the way just the way you are.

–Richard Bryant

Mending Our Nets

Net Mending, School Road, Ocracoke, Fall 2018

Matthew 4:21-25

21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Sometimes I travel in time by arriving at the church. It happened once again this morning. I got out of my car, looked behind me and saw my neighbor mending his nets. It’s a fairly typical scene on Ocracoke. Many people still make their living by commercial fishing. Net mending is not only a regular occurrence it’s also a practical necessity. Somehow, this morning, it looked a little different. Right across the street from the church, stretched across my neighbor’s drive, was one long net. I thought, “This is what it looked like.” What did what look like? I saw the call to discipleship at ground zero.

Net mending hasn’t changed in two thousand years. The fishermen on the Sea of Galilee mended their nets in the same traditional way as those who fish the waters of Ocracoke. Fishing is fishing. I realized (and I’m not sure why) that I’m standing in the place where Jesus’ disciples made the decision to follow Jesus. It’s not the fishermen mending their nets by the Galilee; it is the action of the fishermen mending their nets. From a place like this Jesus calls people like us. There are no metaphors, similes, or comparisons needed to help our modern minds apply the difficult teachings of the ancient world. All I had to do was walk across the road and wait to be called. Given what’s going on these days, Jesus will be along any minute. I wonder, am I ready to go?

Richard Lowell Bryant

Do The Right Thing (Mark 7:24-37)

This passage is painful to read.  It hurts in much the same way it does to read a newspaper article about a person of color being mistakenly shot by a police officer or someone attacked because of they wore clothing identifying themselves as members of a particular religious faith.  Do you know what I mean?  When you read those stories, one can feel a palpable sense of pain at a visceral level.  For me, Mark 7:24-37 has that same effect.

Mark touches on any number of issues relevant to Jesus’ time and our own.  There’s a glaring #MeToo moment driving the action in the passage.  A woman from a different ethnic and linguistic group, bound by poverty, and a mother to a disabled child encounters misogyny of the first order; all from the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  There is racism in this passage.  Ideas of race run through this entire story.  How do we know this?  This encounter takes us beyond the Mason-Dixon Line dividing Judea and Galilee.  When Mark says, “Jesus left that place and went to the region of Tyre,” he crossed an international, cultural, linguistic, economic, and social border.  He went to another country.  Jesus went somewhere so close to home yet on the other the side an imagined line where everything was different.  The food, the smells, the history, and the traditions derived from places unfamiliar to Jesus’ own Galilean heritage.  Jesus came from the dominant culture to the east (or as we would say, to the north).  Perhaps, this is why he wanted to go somewhere where he was the odd man out.  Those around him looked different, spoke another language, and didn’t know much of the man from Galilee hiding in their midst.

Mark highlights their differences because he wants his readers to notice these distinctions.  He is telling us that Jesus is aware of these characteristics.  He’s asking, “Is there anything wrong with being a Syro-Phoenician, Greek-speaking, Brown-skinned woman?” No, there is not.  It’s only a problem when someone with those characteristics crosses paths with a misogynist Rabbi from Galilee.  Jesus’ makes her identity a problem.  That’s why reading this passage hurts.  You can say he’s having a bad day.  You can say he’s angry or only wants to be left alone.  In the end, the sad truth is that Jesus looks like a misogynist and a racist.  We should stop trying to explain Jesus’ conduct.

Jesus is awful to the woman from Tyre.  I wish she had a name.  We know Jesus’ name, Mark’s name, and she’s identified by her ethnic group.  Tell me there’s not racism in the Bible.  The Bible is one of the best books at merging misogyny and racism into one action.  What does she do?  She approaches him (ostensibly on his vacation) and asks him to remove a demon from her daughter.

This didn’t sit well with Jesus.  After all, he’d left the United States of Galilee to get some time away from healings and needy people.  The Son of God needs a break.  You’ve got to be kidding me.  When you’re the Son of God, that’s not an excuse I’m willing to accept.  The creator of the universe never gets to say no to a mother with a demon; even on vacation.

Jesus calls her a dog.  I also have no patience for Jesus calling anybody, let alone a woman, a dog.  He said, “the children have to be fed first (meaning the children of Israel)”.  She, being a foreigner, wasn’t a child of Israel, therefore a dog.  Did he forget that he’s in her country?  So let’s add rude to misogynist and racist.  He is calling her a dog in her own country.  Jesus is the foreigner in this situation.  That’s like the President going to Mexico City to raise money for the wall.

The woman is quick-witted.  She’s also nicer than most people would be in this situation.  “Lord,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  “Good Answer!”  Jesus says.  Was this some kind of trivia game?  It reminds me of a Bond villain trying to outsmart Sean Connery.   We hear sassy.  I hope she was mad.

Somehow this jolted Jesus back to a sense of compassion.  Jesus performed one of his trademark long-distance healings.  Mark tells us that she returned to her home to find her daughter well and the demon was gone.  So what do we do now?  Is this merely a weird story where Jesus comes off looking bad and we forget it ever happened?

What is this really about?  There is a good side and an offensive side to Jesus.  It’s essential for us to acknowledge both exist.  We don’t need to justify our worse impulses and awful behavior by pointing to the horrible things Jesus did in the passage.  This behavior is not worth exemplifying and sanctifying.  Even if we end up getting to the right place, the road we took to get there did too much damage.   To be compassionate and share God’s grace, we don’t have put people down or be misogynist racists.  We could do the right thing even if Jesus didn’t in this instance.  Mark tells us in no uncertain terms:  Jesus got it wrong.  Let us learn from his mistakes.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Jesus Takes All The Fun Out of Being Methodist

Jesus takes all the fun out of being United Methodist and religious. Don’t those two go together?  How are people going to know we are Holy Methodists unless we dress alike (custom UMC t-shirts of some nature), pray in public, make grand displays of our faith in the public sphere, Facebook every mission-related activity, and invoke God in every conversation?  Has Jesus not been an evangelism seminar?  Jesus needs to offer coffee, small groups, and a service for men who can’t tuck their shirts in.  Moms need a morning out and Jesus needs to say more about the sanctity of straight people being married.  What is he, some snowflake libtard?  Public piety and a healthy sense of religiosity define one’s Christianity.

Just kidding!  LOL!  I know they don’t but you’ve got to be honest, even on our best days, it’s a distinction we have trouble making.  Just take a look at this:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.”  Matthew 6:1-7

If we can’t practice our piety in public to be seen by others, how are we going to recruit (sorry, I mean evangelize) others to join our churches?  Especially when institutional trust in religion is at an all-time low.  Public practices of piety are our stock in trade.  We would collapse and die without publicity.  We give evangelism awards and applaud each other on the back for cookie sales.  Those are public displays of piety.  We brand everything, from disaster relief ministries to youth events.  We have idolized the corporations and corporate practices that are bankrupting our communities.  Yes, we’re giving to the poor but these giving actions are preceded by the trumpet sound of car magnets, t-shirts, and official name badges.  We don’t call “practicing our piety before others”; we’ve cleaned it up and use the term “witnessing”.

Everyone prays differently.  Cokesbury’s catalog is dominated by books on different methods of prayer.  I think Jesus says:  don’t use your prayer time to make other people uncomfortable.  Just as he says don’t make a big deal out of what you do (focus instead on the how-Jesus is big on methodology), the way you communicate to God is intensely personal.  Do what’s right for you but don’t weird other people out with your words or actions when you pray.  Don’t be a spectacle.  Spectacles are for other people to see.  Who is your audience when you talk to God?  Here’s a thought:  give God the privacy and time God deserves.  Keep your password protected, like you would any sensitive communication.

Religious people love clichés.  (If someone tells me they’re going to put a hedge of protection around me I’m going for the weedeater.) Jesus has heard them all.  Be a better speaker and writer by using fewer clichés.  The same thing goes for prayers.  I know it feels fun, especially when you get on a roll and the “father gods, we just wannas, and hosannas” start to roll off your tongue.  Maybe Jesus is burnt out on hearing so many repeated phrases.  Try saying what’s on your mind.  It doesn’t make you any holier, more religious, or smarter.  Talk to Jesus.  Spit it out.  Drop the jargon.  It’s you Jesus wants, not the Dollar Store trinkets you’re bringing along.

Richard Lowell Bryant

I Am Sick of Talking About the Bread of Life

How does Jesus’ bread talk translate into something Christians can use?  It sounds good and it’s inspirational but will it connect with people in Galilee and on the margins of American society.  Those are the two questions I want to put to Jesus after four weeks of bread, bread, and more bread.

Yes, if given the opportunity, this is what I’d ask Jesus.

However, that’s not all I want to say.   I also want to tell him:

Enough with the bread already! I am sick of talking about how you are the bread of life.  Over and over, week in and week out, it’s the same message, repeated a hundred different ways.  We get it:  you are the bread of life, you come from heaven, you are not like Moses, you’re will not run out, you are everlasting, we will not go hungry, and have I left anything out?    I am on board.  How many times do we need to say the same thing?  Redundancy, Jesus,  is not a virtue.

Sometimes I feel like you believe we’re not only sinful but stupid.  We get it.  I understand that “the bread” will be on the final.  The metaphor makes sense to me.  I realize you’re not talking about cannibalism.  I understand the imagery and the relationship to Moses.  In fact, I picked that up about two weeks ago.  Honestly, I’m good. I’ve got it.  The congregation has got it down pat.  You don’t have to keep talking in these bread circles.  For the love of you, we can move on.  I want to know what I can offer besides making my congregation a) hungry b) wonder about my obsession with carbohydrates or c) puzzle over your self-association with bread or d) think John really wanted to be a baker.

Perhaps we try something new this week?  What about a nice parable or something involving water?  Maybe there’s a leper needing to be healed.  How about a blind, leprous, one legged, Phoenician prostitute needing water?  That’s right up your alley.  She’s about to be stoned by Pharisees.  And she’s fully stocked on bread.  This we can do.

I promise you Jesus, I’m not preaching one more week of this bread ridiculousness.  Joke’s over.

Okay, we’re done.  No more.  See you and the bread on Communion Sunday next month.

Richard Lowell Bryant