Archive for 2016

On Being Human in a Robot Age

On Being Human in a Robot Age
Being human is hard, and getting harder. The decision to remain human consists of hundreds of tiny choices every day. Do I put relationships first, or is it more important to complete tasks? Am I more interested in flesh-and-blood human beings, or do I prefer to deal with abstractions?

These may all sound like nebulous questions designed for an intro philosophy course in college. But for me, I’m finding that this distinction – between being people-centered or idea-centered, relationship-focused or task-focused – lies at the core of what it means to be and remain human in my daily life.

Human nature has been under siege for centuries. In industrial societies, most new wealth was created by mechanizing the power of human labor. Humans were organized into cogs in the vast industrial gearwork. We trained our reflexes to mimic those of industrial machinery. Human bodies are tamed and domesticated to serve the needs of the machine.

In 21st-century America, the mechanization of labor-intensive work – such as in retail, restaurants, and manufacturing – is practically complete. We have learned to behave like machines, achieving high efficiency at performing repetitive tasks, and even social interactions. This benefits the bottom line, producing more goods, services, and products.

But capitalism is never satisfied. By its nature, the machine must always continue to grow. In an age where the human body has been almost completely dominated by the need for domesticated efficiency, capitalism naturally seeks new outlets for its expansion.

No longer content to control our bodies, post-industrial capitalism is now busily domesticating our minds.

Let me give you a very small, perhaps silly example. This morning as I sat down to compose this blog post, I had to make a decision about a title. I knew that certain titles would be more psychologically effective than others. There are formulae for writing titles that help ensure that articles get read. If I follow them, I can expect a greater audience for my writing.

But it doesn’t stop there. The title of an article is linked to its content. If I had chosen to title this piece, “4 Reasons You’re Already Post-Human,” I would have been required to write my whole piece as a bulleted listicle. As a matter of fact, there are formulae for how blog posts should be written, too. Even now, I have a WordPress plugin warning me that my readability “needs improvement.” Any writing that can’t be easily scanned and digested without thought, any phrasing or nuance that might slow the reader down, is likely to reduce engagement, clicks, sharing.

Thus I am cajoled and pressured to mechanize my writing, my thinking – and yours.

This is how we end up with a vapid internet, saturated with fake news, celebrity gossip, and top-ten lists. It’s this mechanization of thought that threatens to transform us into unreflective cogs in an vast intellectual machine that exists to deepen profits rather than stimulate human flourishing.

Our post-industrial society is training us to be cogs rather than creators, objects rather than subjects. I notice this tendency throughout my everyday life. I’ve chosen it, as I’ve bought into the cult of personal efficiency. I keep all my tasks in an electronic to-do list. My life is managed by Google Calendar. I regularly clear my email inbox. I get things done.

Yet, there is a growing emptiness in the midst of all this efficiency. I have become so good at controlling the details and tasks of my life – so why do I feel lost and breathless? Somehow, I’ve been convinced to program myself like a machine. I myself set the timers, checklists, and goals. But the effect is the same. Each day I find myself leaping through hoops with little thought as to why. My life becomes so full, it’s mostly just stimulus and response.

Hannah Arendt wrote that the ultimate goal of totalitarianism is to see every human being completely stripped of personal will and creativity. The ideal totalitarian society would consist of men and women who marched along through their daily routines, without spontaneity or joy – simply responding to commands from beyond themselves, drooling like Pavlov’s dog.

This description of total domination does not yet describe the world we live in. But it’s too close for my own comfort. I am astounded at how, even in the midst of a relatively free society, I have allowed myself to be conditioned to treat life as a series of tasks to perform. I’ve come to regard myself as an instrument for accomplishing things beyond me, rather than simply embracing myself as a unique creation of God, valuable and worthwhile in my own right.

The present social and political crisis in my country provides yet another temptation. It would be easy to tell myself that now, because we are in a time of emergency, I must place all my focus on accomplishing effective resistance to an evil regime. Yet it is precisely the growing danger of totalitarian government that has convinced me that I must root out the seeds of totalitarian thinking and behavior in my own life. How can I resist tyranny if I insist on being a tyrant to myself?

As odd as it may sound, even to me, now is a time for beauty. Now is a moment to acknowledge my own life’s joy and intrinsic value, fully apart from any work I might perform. With idolatrous and tyrannical movements on the rise, it has never been more important to bear witness to the fact that this whole life is a gift. We don’t make it, we don’t earn it, we can’t justify it with our labor. This unexpected divine grace is the foundation of all faith, and a stern rebuke to the ideologies and regimes that would domesticate our lives and mechanize our spirits.

Related Posts:

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.

So You Want a Revolution?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake.
I like to think of myself as a man of action. Pressure brings out the best in me, and I’m good at responding to crisis. In times of confusion, I get organized.

So of course that’s how I responded when Donald Trump claimed victory in the election last month. I held meetings. I spoke out – on my blog and from the pulpit. I encrypted my whole digital life, and encouraged others to do the same. I changed my media consumption habits. I prayed.

I’ve done everything I know to do. My rapid response is complete. Now all I’m left with is the slow work of movement-building. Fostering community. Helping to lay an intellectual and spiritual groundwork for resistance to tyranny.

I’m finding that this work is a lot harder. I am quickly reaching the limits of my own knowledge. I don’t know what’s coming next, and it’s not clear what the game plan is. How do I continue to make a difference in a sustainable way?

As a husband, father, and worker, my responsibility isn’t simple. I don’t feel like it would be faithful for me to abandon my daily work, despite the urgency of the situation. And even if I did, it’s not clear to me where I would be most useful. That’s probably because, in many ways, I’m already doing what I need to be doing. I’m working for justice and peace in the context of my family, work, and the organic communities I’ve helped to grow over the past several years.

I’m reminded that Jesus lived – and died – in the midst of crisis. His homeland was ruled by a dictator on the payroll of a foreign power. There were constant rebellions and intrigue. Protest movements were put down with violence. It’s not surprising that many, including some of Jesus’ closest friends, expected him to confront the Roman Empire on its own terms – with military force.

What’s amazing about Jesus is that he was never reactive. His ministry was not determined by the plots and provocations of the Pharisees, the violence of Herod, or the cruelty of the Roman occupiers. God gave Jesus a unique ministry to carry out, independent of the schemes and expectations of the powers that be. In spite of great temptation to fight the powers on their own terms, Jesus was faithful in gathering a community whose frame of reference was God, not Caesar.

I believe that Jesus is calling me to this same type of ministry. Do you hear him calling you?

The kingdom of God is not merely another historical event. It does not arrive as a response to Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, or any other Caesar stand-in. Rather, the reign of God is a decisive intervention in history to heal the world. Everything else has just been a distraction.

More than any nation or ruler, Jesus is sovereign because he depends on nothing – and all things depend on him. Jesus isn’t in a hurry, and he’s not dismayed by the thrashing evil of the rulers. As his friends, we don’t need to be, either.

Stay awake. This is one of the most important commands that Jesus gives us. We need to hear and obey this command. Because the reign of God is coming like a thief in the night. It will surprise us all. There is only one way to prepare for it: Stay awake.

The good news is this: Staying awake abolishes the fear and confusion that so many of us are feeling right now. To stay awake is to maintain a clear mind and a hopeful heart. Staying awake doesn’t mean we have the solution to this mess. It just means that we are willing to wait on God to show us how to act faithfully.

Jesus asks us to stay awake – to remain attentive, available, and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit that is coming. We don’t have to force it. We can trust that God is at work, and will show us how to move and act for justice. Our task is to respond in courage when the way becomes clear.

It helps to be in community. Here in Washington, DC, we are gathering as friends of Jesus to support one another in staying awake. We share food and prayer. We support one another in seeking the way of Jesus in the midst of these confusing times. If you’re in our region, I invite you to reach out and join us.

Wherever you are, what are the ways that you can gather in supportive community with other friends of Jesus? What does it mean for you to stay awake, and to invite others to keep watch with you?

Related Posts:

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light
It’s a dark time right now. Literally. We’re approaching the shortest day of the year. The sunshine is dimmer. These late fall days can make it really hard to keep moving.

It’s a spiritually dark time, too. I don’t have to repeat all the reasons. You know. With so much evil at work in the world, it’s hard to stay healthy and focused.

In the weeks following the election, my own health has suffered. I spent way too much time interacting on social media and reading articles about things I already knew – things I couldn’t change. Just like so many of us were glued to cable news in the days following the 9/11 attacks, I was transfixed by social media and a wide variety of news outlets.

Eventually I was able to take a step back. I recognized the death-spiral I was caught in. Social media chatter. Nonstop news consumption. An irrational compulsion to somehow “fix” this situation. It was torturing my heart and distorting my spirit.

In a moment of clarity, I disengaged from social media entirely. I knew I didn’t want to stay away forever. But my relationship to social media had to change. At this point, I’m limiting myself to about 10 minutes a day. The ideological environment out there is simply too toxic for me to spend much more time.

I also made the decision to cut off corporate media indefinitely. We have a subscription to the Washington Post, but I’ve been recycling it without reading it. This has been a big change for me. For years, the Post has been a companion with me at breakfast and lunchtime. But I’ve realized that my relationship with the corporate press is no longer healthy. Probably never was. It was long past time to break up.

I’ve learned that bad habits can’t simply be discontinued; they must be replaced with a different habit. Now, every time that I would normally read the corporate media, I instead choose to pick up a book. At first, I was reading Chinese science fiction. Then Bernie Sanders’ new book. Now I’m reading Hannah Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism. I hadn’t fully realized how much of my time I had been giving to consuming corporate propaganda. Now, all that time is available to read works of substance. It’s truly refreshing.

I believe that we are entering into a time of crisis, beyond the memory of almost anyone alive today. I intend to be fully engaged. This is not a moment for retreat into fantasy or isolation. Yet I am also aware that we are already in midst of a spiritual, psychological, and ideological warfare. It makes sense for us to engage this fight on our own terms. Rather than be bombarded by falsehood, distortion, and scare tactics, we can choose another story.

Jesus commands his friends – you and me – to stay awake. Part of staying awake is filling our minds, bodies, and spirits with wholesome things. Now is a time to be discerning about what news sources, ideologies, slogans, and entertainment we take into our lives.

In these days of stress and urgency, I feel called to focus on real relationships with the people around me – all those people of good will who can sense that something is not right. Now is the moment to come together, to support one another in creating alternative communities of meaning. Our homes, offices, and church buildings can become places where the love and light of Jesus Christ is truly alive – not just in words, but through daily actions of mercy and resistance in the face of evil.

I know that many of my brothers and sisters are way ahead of me on the realizations I’ve just expressed. Maybe you’re one of them. Yet even if you are, I feel compelled to share, if only to encourage you. No matter how wise someone is, we all need encouragement. We all need to know that we are a part of a broader community that is living in faith.

Together, we are refusing to imbibe the gathering darkness. We are creating light-filled spaces where the hurt, hungry, and broken can gather. We are a city on a hill, which can’t be hidden – knowing full well the danger and joy this vulnerability brings.

I want to join you in these spaces. Create these spaces. Gather others into communities of trust, love, and firm prophetic witness. God is giving us a message to share. Jesus is here to teach us himself. In the midst of so much falsehood, the truth is speaking within us. Listen together with me. Pray with me. Act with me. In the name of Jesus.

Related Posts:

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

Jesus is Lord. Trump is Not.

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?
Denial is giving way to harsh reality. This is really happening. Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States for the next four years. A Trump presidency threatens the safety and well-being of women, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and the poor. With its belligerent denial of climate change, the Trump regime represents a potentially catastrophic threat to the future of all life. Thanks to the increasing militarization and surveillance of our society under presidents Bush and Obama, this new administration is positioned to carry out a reign of fear and oppression.

When I contemplate where we’re at as a country, and what is likely to come in the months ahead, it’s hard to avoid the twin opiates of panic and denial. Each of us has our own personal favorite, but both of these reactions are a dodge from the hard work of looking reality square in the face. We are soon to be living under a Trump presidency. The level of brutality and injustice in our country, already at danger levels, are about to soar.

The reasonable, respectable voices of denial assure us that “everything will be alright.” But we know that’s not true. Things never were alright, and this election has made this reality plain for anyone with eyes to see. We have the dubious fortune to be alive in a moment of national and planetary crisis. We have every reason to be alarmed.

There are other voices – those of panic and despair –  that are ready to insist that Trump is already virtually invincible. Fascism is ascendent, they say, and the only way to defeat it is with a show of brute force. Few are making overt calls for revolutionary violence yet, but the dog whistles are already blaring on social media. Many on the Left and the Right are gearing up for armed conflict. Their caustic rhetoric ramps up a sense of dread and terror. It prepares us for violence.

This road is a tempting one for me. When I am pushed, I naturally want to push back. And the proto-fascist supporters of Trumpism are pushing very hard right now.

As a follower of Jesus, however, I am committed to a path of nonviolent resistance to evil. God has given us the example of the suffering servant Jesus, who faced humiliation and death at the hands of Empire. He spoke the truth fiercely. Jesus stood with the weak, the outsider, the poor. But when it came time to choose the manner of his revolution, Jesus renounced the sword and took up the cross. Through his death and resurrection, God reveals his power to redeem the evil of this world. Through the cross of Jesus, we discover a path that transforms enemies. God heals the world through the blood of the martyrs.

The way of Jesus is not merely one of embracing unjust suffering. In a way, that would be easy. We could accept the blows of evildoers, all the while feeling ourselves superior. We would not physically attack our enemies, but spiritually we would murder them.

The way of Jesus is so much more powerful than a smug pacifism that judges enemies while refusing to dirty its hands with fighting them. The way of Jesus is a struggle; it’s a very real warfare. It’s a war for our own hearts, and the hearts of those who oppress us. As insane as it may sound – as much as it goes against my own natural tendencies – we are called into a path that seeks the redemption and wholeness of our enemies. That includes Donald Trump, his evil counselors, and his millions of deceived followers.

The way of Jesus never cedes ground to evil. Just as Christ openly defied the Pharisees and the priestly rulers, you and I are called to put our lives on the line. We’re called to disrupt the systems of oppression that hold back grace and healing from the “least of these” in our society. We are also called to pray for those who persecute us. We are tasked not only with justice for the poor, but simultaneously with steadfast prayer and supplication for the salvation of oppressors.

Maybe this sounded like a more “realistic” path a few months ago, back when many of us assumed that Donald Trump could never actually become president. Maybe loving our enemies seems more palatable when our enemies are already defeated. But that’s a cheap gospel of personal convenience and comfort. It is precisely in this moment, as evil rises and our freedom and safety come under threat, that it is most critical that we obey Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies.

We have real enemies now. We know who they are, and their evil plans are clearer than ever. And we must love them. Even as we hold them accountable. Even as we stand against their brazen attacks on our liberty and safety, we are commanded to love them. This means speaking to the inward witness of Christ within Donald Trump, his regime, and the millions of ordinary Americans who have put their trust in him. We are called to love them, even as they mock us, hurl insults, and threaten us.

We are called to love our enemies as we resist them. In Christ the aim of resistance is to bring about healing and redemption for the whole of the creation. This creation includes even those who are most visibly twisted by evil. Our warfare – the Lamb’s War – takes no prisoners. Each and every one of us is to be redeemed and restored in the light and power of Jesus.

This is a challenging path, to put it mildly! The most difficult part for me at this moment is discerning what specific, concrete actions God is calling me to take to resist the spread of white supremacy, misogyny, and destruction of the earth. How do I work against the spread of this culture of death, while never allowing myself to use death’s own weapons? How do I fight fire – not with fire, but with the cleansing water of Christ’s love?

These are no longer theoretical questions, if they ever were. The time has come for us to make the reign of God visible in bold, radical, faithful ways that shake us out of the stupor of panic and denial. What does it look like to invite others into the fiery, prophetic, and loving way of Jesus?

Related Posts:

Jesus is Lord. Trump is Not.

Trump Will Be President. We Must Resist.

Jesus Is Lord. Trump Is Not.

Jesus Is Lord. Trump Is Not.
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (11/20/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Luke 1:67-80.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now On SoundCloud

I was raised in the Quaker community, so I didn’t grow up with liturgical seasons. My church growing up was actually more “high church” than most Quaker meetings, if you can believe it. We actually did observe the Advent season to some extent. I remember as a kid we had five candles up front in the sanctuary, and during worship we’d light one for each week of advent. We finally lit the fifth one at our Christmas Eve service. That’s about as intense as our liturgical calendar ever got.

Since I became a Christian as an adult, I’ve really come to appreciate what I would call the “basic” liturgical calendar – all the big holidays that fall between Advent and Pentecost. Observing Lent, Good Friday, Easter – these have all become a meaningful part of my life. They help shape the spiritual rhythm of my year.

Lately I’ve been preaching more frequently here at Washington City Church of the Brethren, and I’ve found the lectionary to be a sort of gateway drug for what I’d call the “advanced” liturgical calendar. The broader church recognizes all sorts of special days and festivals, way beyond what I ever imagined. There’s a special focus, theme, saint, or event to commemorate practically every day of the year. Growing up Quaker, I thought that there were maybe half a dozen Christian holidays. Turns out, there are hundreds!

So, today is a holiday, too. It’s one that I’d never heard of before I looked at the lectionary for this Sunday. This morning, we’re gathered together on the feast day of Christ the King.

But check this out, this is cool. Ordinarily, today is referred to as the feast of Christ the King. But the official name for today is: The Solemnity of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

Pretty cool, right?

Today is the last Sunday before the beginning of Advent. Advent is all about preparing ourselves for the arrival of the baby Jesus, the infant King of kings. We’re getting ready to welcome the Word made flesh, who comes to us in weakness and vulnerability yet is the power through whom everything came into being – from the sun in the sky to your breakfast this morning. He came in weakness, but his power is limitless. Though he was willing to die for us, God has raised him up to live and reign forever. This morning, we declare that Jesus is the one true God and sovereign of the universe.

He is our commander and chief. He is our president. He is the reference point for all our thoughts and actions. He is the rightful recipient of our prayers, our hopes, our dreams, and our devotion.

He is powerful leader.

This morning, our scripture reading talks about the huge difference between the leadership of human beings, and this fierce, loving reign of justice that we find in Jesus.

This reading is really well-timed. The limits and pitfalls of human government are about as clear as they’ve ever been in living memory. Our country has been struggling for a long time. And in the last year we’ve watched our society straining under the weight of political divisions, violence committed against black and brown bodies, hatred poured out on immigrants, women, and the LGBT community, and a stubborn refusal to respond to the very real ecological crisis that threatens our future as a people.

There’s never been a time in history when we’ve been in greater need of the kingship of Jesus. There’s never been an Advent season when we should be more ready to hear the good news that Christ is here to govern us in truth, compassion, justice, and wholeness.

On this morning, more than most mornings, we dream of an earth restored. We hear the creation crying out for redemption. We hear the voices of the poor, the oppressed, those who are shoved aside in our society. We hear the reality of our own pain and hopelessness in the face of so much evil. In the face of national leadership that for so many years has shown itself to be blind to the destruction of the creation, and deaf to the cry of the poor.

We need a savior. We need a leader. We need our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.

In our scripture reading this morning, we hear that God is angry at the oppression of his people. Through Jeremiah the prophet, God calls out the ruling classes of Israel, who have posed as shepherds but who in fact are only interested in shearing the sheep and eating their flesh. God is speaking to the evil rulers of ancient Israel, and he is speaking just as clearly to those who rule over us today: The politicians and officials, the celebrities and pundits – an entire system of governance through fear, confusion, and consumerist seduction. God condemns this system, and he promises that he will judge it, upend it, and replace it with the long-awaited reign of God.

Here’s what God says through Jeremiah: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock… I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer…”

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

We are in the midst of a national crisis. White supremacy has captured the White House. The constitutional order that has sustained American democracy for centuries is under threat. The very fabric of our society is being called into question.

But we’re not the first ones to experience this kind of upheaval. And we don’t stand alone in the face of these challenges. God has promised to accompany us in these dark days. He has assured us that he will intervene in history to thwart the selfishness and evil of our human leaders. He has promised to raise up a righteous Branch (his name is Jesus).

God has declared that he will be with us, and that he will send us a righteous ruler to govern us, to heal our people and our land. But we can’t just sit back and wait for that to happen. It’s not an accident that we receive this word of encouragement through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. There can’t be a kings without prophets. As part of God’s plan to reign in our society, we are called to be his prophets in this generation.

That’s what our second reading this morning is about. Early on in the gospel of Luke, we get introduced to John the Baptist. Actually, we first get introduced to his parents. John’s dad was Zechariah, Israel’s high priest. His mom was named Elizabeth. They were both very old, and had never been able to have children.

Well, one day when Zechariah is ministering before God in the Temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him and tells him that his wife Elizabeth is going to have a son. Zechariah is astonished at this news. Understandably, he expresses a little bit of uncertainty about the idea that he and his elderly wife could possibly bear children. In response to his skepticism, Gabriel tells Zechariah that until his son is born, he will not be able to speak. And so it is. Zechariah comes out of the Temple speechless, and he stays that way for the next nine months.

When the baby is born, there is some discussion about what his name should be. Elizabeth wants to name him John, but all the men of the family think he should be named Zechariah, after his father. When Elizabeth insists on the name John, the men go to Zechariah – who’s still mute – and ask him what name he wants to give the child. Zechariah asks for a writing tablet, and spells it out for them, “His name is John.”

Now the scripture says that after he writes these words, “Immediately his mouth was open and his tongue freed and he began to speak, praising God.” Zechariah must have been really noisy, because it also says that all the neighbors heard it and were frightened. “What then will this child become?” they asked one another. “For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.”

It’s at this point that Zechariah gives the prophecy that we heard this morning. This birth was a miraculous sign that the reign of God is breaking into history. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” John would be a prophet of this new order:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people, by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We’re sitting in darkness right now. We’re in the shadow of death. We need the dawn to break on us. We need a prophet to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Well, I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news. The good news is, God “has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David.” Jesus is here with us. He’s ready to lead us if we’ll open ourselves to his kingship. If we’ll take on the very real risks that come with being his friends. In times like these, that’s encouraging to me.

Here’s the bad news. If we want to walk in the kingdom of God, the riskiness of discipleship isn’t going to stay theoretical for very long. This journey is going to cost us, just like it cost John.

Most of us know what happened to John. He had an amazing ministry. He touched the lives of thousands. And, just as Zechariah predicted, he was instrumental in preparing a way for the ministry of Jesus, who conquers the world and all its darkness.

John was a prophet. John spoke the word of God. Unabridged and uncut. He didn’t win popularity contests with the rulers. It’s not an accident that he spent his ministry living out in the wilderness beyond the reach of polite society. He was one of the most powerful voices in all of Israel, and yet he lived his life as an outcast.

John was also imprisoned for his witness. He ultimately died for it, when Herod ordered him beheaded. John was a prophet of God, and like so many other prophets before and after him, he paid the ultimate price for his faithful obedience.

The good news is that the reign of God is coming. It’s the power of invincible love that can’t be destroyed. But, as Jesus demonstrated for us, that unstoppable power is revealed in weakness, suffering, and even death. John died in Herod’s dungeon. Jesus was put to death on a Roman cross. The cost of discipleship is real, and each one of us has to consider whether we are ready to face the consequences of following Jesus.

We can’t delay our choice any longer. The false shepherds are devouring our people. The wolves are loose in the fold. God has promised us deliverance, a savior. Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe stands with us and sees all the way to the end of war, violence, intimidation, and discrimination.

But that eschatological reality doesn’t exempt us from the challenge of discipleship. On the contrary, it is precisely because Jesus has conquered the world through the blood of his cross that we must be willing to carry our own, in this time and place.

When we as Christians say that “Jesus is Lord,” we are by necessity saying that Caesar is not. The United States government is not lord. Donald Trump is not lord. The white supremacist regime that is currently preparing to take power is not lord. Just as John spoke the truth to the tyrant Herod, we must preach the word in this dangerous season.

Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind. He let the oppressed go free. He proclaimed the jubilee year of debt forgiveness. He endured torture and death at the hands of empire. He preached the good news all the way to the depths of hell. What will he ask us to do? Are we ready?

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is a solemnity. It’s a solemnity because love is powerful. Love doesn’t play games with the truth. It doesn’t back down before hatred and fear. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Empires come and go, but love never ends. We have to ground ourselves in that.

These are heavy times, and this is a heavy sermon. But I hope that you feel encouraged, too. Because we are incredibly privileged to be the friends of the light in these days of darkness. John the Baptist knew that it was a joy and an honor to serve as a prophet of the living God. So will we. Through the pain, the doubt, and the uncertainty, we are being invited into the most joyful path that there is, the way of Jesus – our brother, our friend, our king.

Related Posts:

Trump Will Be President. We Must Resist.

This Wall Is Coming Down. Which Side Are You On?

Trump Will Be President. We Must Resist.


Under a broken electoral college system, and in the context of widespread suppression of black and brown voters, the United States has chosen an openly racist, climate-denying, misogynistic, alleged sexual predator as its executive leader. With the appointment of racist zealot Stephen Bannon to Trump’s cabinet, white nationalism (for some reason referred to as “populism” by the establishment press) has been catapulted to the highest levels of our government. These are dark days indeed.

Since the election, I’ve been trying to reject despair and look for positive next steps that I can take in the midst of this nightmare scenario. One thing is for certain: Trumpism is not normal. It is essential that we not allow ourselves to get used to a world that embraces overt racism and xenophobia. These are times that call for faithful resistance to manifest evil that is emerging across our nation and planet.

It is also time for repentance. For those of us who have opposed Trump’s rise to power, we must acknowledge our own complicity in the economic systems that have fueled his rise. Income inequality, disastrous trade deals that benefit primarily the 1%, and a political system that is governed by big money and elite interests – all of these have been fully embraced by leaders in both parties. As we heed the call to resist this new, very dangerous administration, we must never forget the decades of elite bipartisan collusion that led us to this point.

Nothing has been more bipartisan than the creation of the military/industrial complex that is about to pass into the hands of the Trump regime. The drone-equipped surveillance state that Trump will inherit has been most fully developed and refined under the eight years of President Obama’s administration. Democrats polished the gun that is about to be placed in Trump’s hand.

For all of us who have been willing collaborators – or even just sullen bystanders – in this process, it is time for repentance. We must recognize and repent of of our willingness to tolerate endless war, unlimited spying, and repression of people around the globe. Even under the leadership of our first African American president, this state-sponsored terror has mostly targeted people of color – both within the United States and beyond its borders. For those of us who are white people, this calls for an extra layer of awareness and repentance.

As challenging as these times are, there is going to be a temptation to fall into one of two traps: Despair, and panic. On the one hand, we may become so overwhelmed by the loss and horror that we are witnessing that we choose to zone out and try to retreat into our own personal bubbles. This strategy is already being openly advocated by people like Garrison Keillor, who plans on withdrawing from public life and abandoning America to the wolves of Trumpism. This is a move only possible for the most privileged among us, who choose to ignore the struggles of people of color, women, and LGBT folk, and hope that the Trump regime won’t come for them next.

Besides despair and resignation, the other temptation we face is panic. Many of us are only half-joking when we talk about fleeing to Canada. There’s a sense that Trump’s regime will reshape the face of America overnight. But our answer must be: “Not if we have anything to say about it.”

And we do. We live in a perilous moment, but the friends of freedom, compassion, and justice are not without resources. The United States government and civil society still contain many checks and balances to slow the rise of authoritarianism in our country. Trump’s election has awakened millions of us to the threat that we’re facing. The time has never been more ripe for a real, positive change in our nation. 

We must have the courage to be agents of that change. Unbowed by fear of the unknown, by the threats and hatred being spewed by the white nationalist right, we are called to stand with the least of these our brothers – all those who are threatened by the rise of Trump.

Now is the time to stand up, organize, and resist. Not next month. Not after the inauguration. Today. As we speak, the Trump administration is planning out its strategy for the first 100 days of the new regime. So must we.

For all of us who seek to be friends of Jesus, now is a time to live out his commandment that we be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” I ask that you join me in prayer that leads to courageous action. May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ guide us into faithful witness in the face of darkness and oppression.

Related Posts:

If Donald Trump Wins

What Does it Mean to Follow Jesus in the Age of Trump?