In Kashmir, Niger, Honduras, and parts of every U.S. city, the situation is urgent. Thankfully, so is God’s persistent love. It can be found in movements for positive social transformation—seen and unseen—throughout the world.
This month, words from the Word highlight the good news that God has acted first, in creation and in history, for justice and peace. Even better, God continues to act first through people, events, and movements at once spiritual and social. Those who would participate are never left to dangle from first principles and lofty doctrines. “Follow me,” says a voice, into the ongoing action.
The Creator forms the heavens, the earth, and the people—weaving them in secret and placing words on their tongues. The Christ casts out unclean spirits, teaches with authority, and overcomes law with love. The Holy Spirit blows over the waters, lowers the threshold for times to change, and amplifies the voices of a younger Samuel and an older Moses.
The encounters and events in this month’s readings give spiritual power and purpose to the great movements of faith and liberation.
In this new calendar year, try on this bias for action. Three of the five gospel lessons are from Mark, where things happen fast and the author likes the word “immediately.” Bureaucracies can accomplish important things, but just now we have to ask a different question: What makes for a movement?
Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 148; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
The lectionary verses this week elucidate the kind of naming and name-praising that emerge from intimate, honoring relationships between God and people. They are suggestive of the sorts of naming possible when human relationships emulate this respectful “I—Thou” perspective.
The Creator brings forth righteousness—a right relationship—among the people of Israel and among the people and God. Only then will they “be called by a new name…. [A] crown of beauty…a royal diadem in the hand of God” (Isaiah 62:2-3).
The psalmist calls Israel close to God to praise “the name of the Lord for his name alone is exalted” (Psalm 148:13). Galatians explores this relationship further in the coming of the Christ, naming the faithful as God’s adopted children and therefore heirs. The Lukan verses follow directly after the naming of the infant Jesus (“he will save” in Aramaic), his circumcision, and related sacrifices following Levitical traditions.
When relationships are holy and honorable, naming becomes something sacred. Contrast this with naming other nations as part of the “axis of evil.” Such a naming fixes relationships in a brew of animosity and fear. Bombing soon follows.
Naming one another as God names us initiates peace movements open to the Holy Spirit. Seeing enemies as potential friends hints at détente. In God’s love we await the adoption of all—the persecuted, the poor, and the perennial enemy.
Last summer, the United States began shipping 55,000 tons of food to North Korea, one of the “axis of evil” countries, hoping to lure leaders into nuclear weapons talks. In the fall, U.S. military helicopters flew into mudslide-devastated Honduras, carrying food and shuttling out the injured. In moments like these, all naming changes.
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
Environmental, business, and governmental groups have agreed on a Great Lakes clean-up price tag: $13.8 billion. The five-year project would include redirecting overflowing sewage, controlling foreign species, protecting wetlands, and other projects.
Such a funding shift requires spiritual movements to work hand-in-hand with environmental ones. In Christian spirituality, water is symbolic and life-giving, cleansing and sacred.
In divine time, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). God then said “light,” “day,” and “night.” Waters and winds flow throughout our faith stories and vital movements. In Mark, John baptizes Jesus. In Acts, people in the early church are “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came upon them…” (Acts 19:5-6). “The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters,” echo cosmic Davidic choruses (Psalm 29:3).
Ecumenical environmental movements are perfectly placed to find the inspiration to again resurrect the Great Lakes, the rivers, and the oceans. When the waters are polluted, the poor suffer the most. When the waters are pure and replenished, we all become richer—in health and in our sacred ties to creation. May God’s holy wind ever sweep over clean waters.
1 Samuel 3:1-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51
Some voices transcend institutions and bureaucracies. Voices of wonder, assurance, and atonement sound like this:
“Follow me” (Jesus to Philip in Galilee, John 1:43). “Come and see” (Philip to Nathanael, when he asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth, John 1:46). “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the king of Israel!” (Nathanael to Jesus, John 1:49).
“Samuel! Samuel!” (the Lord to Samuel, 1 Samuel 3:10). “Speak, for your servant is listening” (Samuel’s response).
“For…you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (the psalmist singing, in worship, to the One who has made every person in beauty and infinite mystery, Psalm 139:13-14).
If we listen to prophetic voices in our time, we continue to hear the needed words of creation, epiphany, and hope. They are the voices of Youssou N’Dour, Rokia Traore, Tiken Jah Fakoly, and Peter Gabriel singing in Geneva at the United Against Malaria concert. They are voices such as Bread for the World President David Beckmann at a “One Table, Many Voices” gathering at the Washington National Cathedral: “God has made it possible in our time to reduce hunger, and we need to get the job done.”
Listen to this voice: “Follow me.”
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Psalm 62:5-12; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Movements for the greater good always include a series of escapes. Slaves escape from servitude. Women escape from the beatings of abusive men. The unjustly convicted prisoner legally escapes from death row. Nelson Mandela escapes—through fortitude of spirit until apartheid is broken—from Robben Island.
What are needful escapes for those of us in comfortable, rich nations? The Bible is rife with calls to escape soul-withering materialism. “If riches increase,” we are warned, “do not set your heart on them” (Psalm 62:10).
The persecuted fleeing harm, the poor eluding oppression, and the rich exiting addictions all foretell a better day. Paul bids the Corinthians think eschatologically about possessions, and even marriages, because “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). Depending on the necessary escape, that Spirit can be a liberating wind for both oppressed and oppressor.
Nineveh escaped ruin because the people “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth” (Jonah 3:5).
Are there things that threaten the very existence of America as a people? A point at which the gap between rich and poor becomes so great (and the middle class so small) that a society implodes? Is that the fatal flaw to “setting our hearts” on riches? With the cost of rebuilding the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast at $200 billion, Congress is debating further cuts in programs for the poor. Nineveh turned from its wickedness; can we?
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28
Praxis means “practice,” yet something more. It is the application of know-how and abilities to a dynamic situation, a real-world context. This month we have a beautiful set of readings in which to witness several praxes in play. Our biblical role models practice not only what they preach, but as they teach.
In Mark, we see people becoming astounded with the power of Jesus’ teaching in the context of his casting out an unclean spirit. Though Jesus “taught” 16 times in Mark and is called “teacher” 11 times, there is little of the content of his teaching, but a whole lot of living context.
A similar love-as-praxis appears in the epistle, as Paul teaches about food first offered to idols. His social conscience praxis—what is the effect on others?—trumps the letter of the law.
The psalmist sings a hymn of praise for the situation God provides for deeper learning: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10, italics added; “fear” here means awe). The praxes that form Christian spiritual movements are healing and compassion. God’s love for the world forms the milieu of prophetic involvement.
Some folks in New Orleans demonstrated real hope-as-praxis last Oct. 9 when they joyfully sounded trumpets and trombones on the corner of North Broad and St. Bernard in the first jazz funeral procession following Hurricane Katrina. Remembering Chef Austin Leslie, who had died a month earlier, they played a gentle “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and a celebratory “Jesus on the Main Line.” Leaving abstractions behind, they immediately danced—down a dry street—into their shared future.